True Devotion marks the 6th full-length record (out tomorrow on Barsuk) from Seattle resident and ex-WaxWing frontman Rocky Votolato. In the decade following the demise of his band Rocky has crafted some of the most beautiful and honest music to ever come out of the Emerald City. After what’s felt like a very long time away, I’m happy to report that Mr. Votolato is indeed back.
In the years following the release of his last album, The Brag and Cuss (2007) Rocky went through a widely publicized dark time, characterized by the arrival our old friend’s self-doubt, depression and anxiety. Trapped within the four walls of his mind, Votolato reportedly stopped writing and touring altogether opting instead to hole up in his apartment for months on end studying existential philosophy, physics and theology.
In much the same way that “Lilly White” opened The Brag and Cuss, True Devotion’s “Lucky Clover Coin” sets the tone for the album to come:
Your eyes are broken glass the shattered light
Shines on everything you see
There’s a world I want to leave behind
Where a sunset in a constant bloody winter
Gives the only light, and with it I hoped I would disappear
In just five lines, Votolato paints a vivid picture of where he’s been for the last three years. Even more important than finding his way through the immediacy of these thoughts is the recognition of their lasting presence and a need to remain vigilant:
You’re keeping me alive
‘Till the sunlight shows spring roses in water
And for the rest of my life
I’ll put your broken pieces back together
Much thinner than the majority of his previous release (barring “Whiskey Straight” and“Silver Trees”) Rocky’s latest effort leans heavily on the minimalist instrumentation and vocal strength of his earlier work. Given the timing, this fresh take on Makers, A Brief History and Suicide Medicine makes perfect sense. Beneath somber strings and delicate strumming True Devotion’s redemptive arc becomes apparent:
I want to spend more time with you
Because you make me happy
It’s something I’d been so little of
But you showed me that I can be
It is the blood of this journey -- through life’s loneliest, most desperate moments through discovery, reflection and change -- that pumps within the hopeful chambers of True Devotion. One of the album’s highest points comes midway in the form of “Sparklers.” Flawlessly picked and reminiscent of “The Uppers Aren’t Necessary” (from Makers), “Sparklers” examines the finite nature of life’s peaks and valleys. (Listen to a live version here.)
Everything is right, Everything is wrong
Letting go is the best way to hold on
So watch the light dance in the dark until it’s gone
Sparklers only burn for so long
Like on “All Things Must Pass” before it, Votolato reminds us that there can be no good without bad; no flowers without rain; no happy without sad -- the knowledge of which allows us to enjoy the individuality of life’s moments without fear or regret.
Through all of this clarity one gets the sense that Rocky is seeing the special people in his life through new eyes. “My Sun Devil” reintroduces us to the muse of “Before You Were Born” (from The Brag and Cuss). To his love of more than a decade Votolato shows his gratitude:
True Devotion and True Virtue will hold you at the center
As the waves crash over
Some things are forever
And your love is an Anchor
As the closing moments of True Devotion’s final track, “Where We Started,” fade into same strings as its first, we are once again reminded of the freedom attained from simply letting go.
Gandhi once said that the most important battle to fight was overcoming one’s own demons, fears, and insecurities. True dat, Mahatma. I thought about starting this off by telling Rocky Votolato how important his work is. How his last two albums have been instrumental in my own discovery of love. How the tone of his voice has been a source of friendship over the last several years –- high-fiving me through the light (Makers) and sitting up with me through the dark (The Brag and Cuss). My first inclination, after finally getting to hear Rocky’s latest masterpiece, is to just say thanks.
So here it is. Thanks, Rocky.