The Delines came together following the meeting of author and singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin, formerly of Portland, Oregon-based alt-country group Richmond Fontaine, and vocalist Amy Boone, of Texas-based The Damnations. With the lineup rounded out by former Richmond Fontaine drummer Sean Oldham, fellow Portland group The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee on keyboards and Tucker Jackson on pedal steel, the group made their debut in 2014 with Colfax, an album of slow-paced alt-country ballads based around Vlautin’s literary explorations of tragic characters. These stories were brought to life by Boone’s world-weary vocals, which added a dusty southern edge to the gentle, often laid-back arrangements.
Nearly five years on, The Delines return with their follow-up The Imperial. The wait was prolonged due to an unfortunate incident in early 2016, when Boone was hit by a car, both her legs broken. Though much of the album was apparently finished before the incident, some of her vocals were recorded following her recovery. She retains her sympathetic, vulnerable vocals throughout the album, as the band come through with 10 more songs about tragic, doomed characters, circumstances, and broken lives.
While Colfax did feel more like simply a collection of songs, it appears that there has been more care put into the sequencing and structure of The Imperial. Though still essentially a collection of songs or stories, it is clearly broken up into two halves. The songs at the ends of both halves, “Roll Back My Life” and “Waiting on the Blue” make for the quietest and most stripped-down moments on the record, with the comparatively upbeat “Eddie and Polly” feeling like a new morning to open the second half.
The record opens with the mid-tempo “Cheer Up Charley”, a plea to a friend going through a rough time, where Boone is at her most sympathetic and caring, with just a touch of the worn roughness to balance out the slightly tired but bright instrumentation, as the band joins in on the rousing “come on” refrain, strokes of pedal steel colouring the bittersweet mid-tempo backing. Title track “The Imperial” follows, a story of a couple long-split briefly reuniting after the man’s release from prison. It is the refrain where the song really opens up and tugs at the heartstrings, with the plaintive strings adding to the sweet memories of better times, revealing a touching and sentimental side to the story.
“Where Are You Sonny?” begins quietly, with a grim keyboard line as Boone sings about a scene of a lover violently walking out against a mundane backdrop in a parking lot, spending the rest of the song lamenting and searching for her missing lover. “Let’s Be Us Again” is underpinned by a desperate longing, just to go back to a simpler time in a relationship, an idealised desire that sadly seems like little more than just that.
The first half is brought to a close by “Roll Back My Life”, the most stripped-down and intimate song thus far, featuring little more than Boone’s voice and a heavily-reverbed piano, which seems to constantly hang in the midst. She sings as if looking out of a narrow window at the city lights at the end of a long day, with gentle guitar strums rounding out the song.
Next, two similarly-titled story songs are placed back to back, with the first being “Eddie and Polly”. The most uptempo cut on the album, it follows a young and naïve couple whose love burns out almost as soon as it ignites, as they run out of money and break up, in very much a storybook manner. While the music for the most part is light-hearted, the augmented chord at the end of each verse brings the story into a sharp focus, and ends on the ominous note of “the party never stops; the pressure starts”. Following that, “Holly the Hustle” slows things down again, for what may be the album’s saddest, most tragic moment. It tells the story of the title character, whose life seems to be a succession of tragic events – she loses both her parents by 13, is taught to drink every day by 16 and is left beaten and with no place to live by 19. In the end, it isn’t clear whether she dies, as she is “left drunk and bleeding”, but either way, the song is a genuine tearjerker, sung by Boone with an appropriately sympathetic and regretful delivery, as if wishing she could have helped her, but knowing she never could – “oh Holly…”
And in the end, all that’s left is “Waiting on the Blue”, the album’s quietest moment – a kind of flip-side to the comparatively warm “Roll Back My Life”. It ends the album on a note of late-night sleeplessness and loneliness, with only the sparse, bleak, keyboard lines to back Boone’s fragile vocal, later coloured by a quiet swell of ambient strings and horns. It is an ending somewhat reminiscent of Sparklehorse’s “Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain”, a lonesome and coldly comforting conclusion to its respective album.
While The Imperial is not a huge departure from the group’s debut Colfax, it is a very elegant and bittersweet record, and makes for a more focused and refined effort overall. While a few of the songs do seem to repeat themselves musically, and it isn’t the most diverse or adventurous album, the stories and Amy Boone’s weary singing are mostly compelling enough to make up for that. The Imperial has a very sleek, wooded over matte aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a bittersweet drama season finale. It is also music that one might imagine being played in a small town Texan bar late at night. A fine album to begin 2019.
The Imperial is released via Decor Records on Friday 11th January.