If you’ve been living in blissful ignorance of Tyler Childers and his music, I invite you to rectify this, and quickly, so that when he blows up as he rightfully should, you can say you were ahead of the curve and that you knew about this cool eastern Kentucky native before it was cool. I am not claiming to be one of the many people bombarding sites like Saving Country Music asking for updates on Childers for months and years prior to this release; in fact, I had never heard of him either until that voice came belting out of Colter wall’s album on “Fraulein” in May. It’s rare that someone can make such an impression with just a verse, but that killer voice and the unique, sort of raspy, weathered tones and cracks, especially in Tyler’s higher register, made a lasting impression on this listener.
So we come to Purgatory, and while I wouldn’t say there’s one moment absolutely blowing me away on the level of Tyler’s participation in “Fraulein,” this is a really great album. It’s a record of hard living–drinking, smoking, cocaine, women–and the rare, special women that can turn you from such vices. I wouldn’t say it’s thematic throughout, but it does seem like Tyler is on an endless cycle of screwing up, falling in love, and turning back to vices again after the heartbreak or simply because like he says in “Whitehouse Road,” “it’s a damn good feelin’ to run these roads.” The title track seems to link the subject matter somewhat with its lines like “Catholic girl, pray for me, you’re my only hope for heaven.” It seems that Childers is seeking a place in purgatory because he knows he can’t, or won’t, change, but he believes in hell and wants to avoid it. A lot of this album is delivered in a somewhat lighthearted, offhanded manner, but these underlying themes do seem to be running through it, however unintentionally. It’s also very much a Kentucky record, and although universal in theme, there’s a bit of Tyler’s home in the references and in that accent which certainly adds to this album.
The strongest tracks here are the ones that best showcase that raw power and intensity unique to Tyler Childers and his voice. The opener, “I swear (To God”), is the best example, beginning the record in fine fashion with its spirited narrative and details of waking up with a shiner and not knowing “what all happened.” “Whitehouse Road” also captures some of that quality in his voice, and this one is just an all-around great song. On the softer part of the record, “Lady May” stands out, again because it showcases Tyler well, with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. “Honky Tonk Flame” and “Universal Sound” also stand out because they add something personal to the album and together tell the story of Tyler Childers’ love affair with music. “Universal sound” is a bit ironic because it really doesn’t sound like the rest as far as the production, but the heart in it just makes this song, and you believe every word he’s saying. There’s also a line in this one that seems wistful and adds to those underlying tones, as he reflects that when he was young, music was all he needed; now, “I think about the vices I’ve let take me over time,” as if he wishes he still only needed music.
The one thing that holds this record back slightly is the fact that while I genuinely enjoy every song here, and some are even real standouts, there could be even more. As mentioned before, there’s no single moment on this record that would make an impression on me quite like the moment Childers had on the Colter Wall album, even if the entire record is pretty great as a whole. Some of this is just due to playing it safe with the keys; “Tattoos” could be higher, but it’s probably recorded in this key for the sake of the fiddle, which indeed makes the song. “Born Again” could be higher too. It’s that place in his higher register where the part of Tyler Childers that is so wonderfully unique resides, and I just wish we heard it in more moments on this album. It’s as if Tyler Childers has not yet quite recognized his full potential as a vocalist, and/or it wasn’t given enough consideration during production. Other than that, the production is actually quite excellent, and credit to Sturgill Simpson for that, for making it varied and interesting throughout and keeping it true to Tyler and his sound. As far as these aspects, it’s actually one of the best production efforts I’ve heard in 2017. But back to the vocals…it’s a difficult criticism because there’s nothing really wrong with this record at all–in fact, it’s turning out to be one of my personal favorite listens of the year–but it could have been even more, and that only speaks to the full talent of Tyler Childers. It’s a case of an excellent vocalist who sounds like a good one here, and while I probably shouldn’t complain because the independent scene is strapped for even good vocalists at the moment, I can’t help feeling Tyler is selling himself a little short in that department.
So, overall, this is a fine album, and Tyler Childers is a name you need to know. It’s got variety in production, catchy melodies, and great songwriting throughout. It’s a good balance between the more fast-paced stuff and the love ballads, so even though there’s some similarity in theme, none of it runs together, and it makes for an engaging story. The only real problem with this whole thing is that it could have been even better, and that’s a compliment to Childers and a reflection of the standards to which I have held him. Nevertheless, Purgatory will be one of my most played 2017 albums, and he should be very proud of it.