War Surplus

Becky Warren

Independent release, 2016


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“Heaven help me I don’t know what’s wrong / I went away and came back gone”
- Becky Warren, “Anything That Lasts”

In a just world, Becky Warren would be a household name. Of course, if the world was just, Warren might have a lot less to write about.

Hard luck and tough choices are the Nashville singer-songwriter’s stock in trade, the core of her gut-wrenchingly real and poetic songs about damaged characters grappling with all manner of demons. Musically, she sounds like Lucinda Williams in an all-night jam session with Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen in the dampest, darkest corner of a Nashville honky tonk—raw, gritty country-folk trading shoulder punches with expansive Southern-inflected rock and roll.

Unlikely as it sounds, Warren’s 2016 debut War Surplus might be even more visceral than her 2018 album Undesirable, which offered vivid glimpses into the lives of homeless people she met on the streets of Nashville. The songs of War Surplus grew out of personal experience in an ill-fated marriage to a veteran of the Iraq war who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Where many might have dodged the heat of such a personal subject, Warren made the choice to lean into it and turn her pain into art, poring through the literature on PTSD and veterans transitioning back to civilian life, and connecting with other veterans and their families.

The album that grew out of this work is essentially a novella told in a dozen interconnected songs about Scott, a deeply damaged Iraq war vet, and June, the self-doubting romantic who wants to redeem herself by being his redemption. As on Undesirable, the songcraft is exceptional, with every one of these 12 songs containing at least one line that stung like a needle going in.

The opening couplet of dark, edgy scene-setting kickoff track “Call Me Sometime” offers a concise summary of both main characters’ backstories: “I used to have a heart but I had to cut it loose / Now there’s nothing in my chest but a mess of bad news.” Then country weeper “San Antonio” digs deeper into June’s attraction to Scott, as she cries out that “I’ve been cut clean down to the bone / And the only thing I know is that I’m finally home.” And how’s this for a closing line: “Yeah the great state of Texas sings something secret for each of its souls tonight / And you’re the song that’s been stuck in my head all my life.” Oof.

Warren describes the giddy falling-in-love moment from Scott’s perspective with the gritty, buoyant honky-tonk rocker “Dive Bar Sweetheart,” before he ships out to the Middle East in “Stay Calm Get Low,” a wise, bitter, yet tuneful catalog of the twisted reality of war. “Killing time in Iraq / Where the meaning of life is to make it back… You’ll be amazed at what you learn to ignore / I ain’t what I used to be / I’m just a yellow ribbon on an SUV.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

June longs for her lover in “I Miss You,” a slow country dirge lit up by Warren’s gorgeous, thoughtful phrasing and sterling lyrics about the alienation of loneliness: “Stale clichés wearing cowboy hats / Line the streets tonight like needle tracks / Stoned on what they pretend to be / Not one of them means a thing to me.” The closing verse is longing personified: “When they made my heart/ They did something wrong / Cuz it’s been rust and dead wires since you’ve been gone / Now I haunt this diner tryin’ to disappear / I’m just wasted here.”

This naturally sets up the rollicking “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” in which Warren packs the stories of three different soldier’s decisions to enlist into a three-and-a-half-minute,  foot-tapping, hand-clapping celebration of bad choices. “Ironwood Strong” is another haunting ballad, a lullaby sung by June to comfort Scott somewhere in the desert half a world away: “You woke up with your memory on fire / Afraid you lost yourself outside the wire / You’re gonna be all right / You’re gonna be all right.”

“Off My Back” finds good ol’ boy Scott back Stateside complaining about his woman complaining about his drinking. For the sake of contrast Warren sets the song as a playful barroom blues-rocker even though at its core it’s a bruising illustration of the spiral of alcoholic rage. That rage explodes in the headlong rocker “Take Me Back Home”: “Drinking at the Sheraton / Too myself to sleep again / A guy said he’d give me a shot / He sang a couple of verses / Of ‘thank you for your service’ / I nodded in all the right spots / It didn’t go well / He had bibles to sell / I blame the whole thing on him / He just wouldn’t hear it / So full of holy spirit / I landed one square on his chin.” As the 4/4 backbeat pushes insistently and the guitars growl and purr, Warren hits the devastating chorus: “Take me back home, I ain’t no good around here no more / Holding a match, soaked in gas with the fire of hell at my core / I try my best to fake it but I ain’t what I was before / So take me back home to the war.”

That rage comes home to June in the dark, bluesy “Grenade”: “I never would’ve guessed you could be so cruel / The hate in your eyes when you’ve had a few / I’m a girl who can take the truth / Do you love me as little as it feels like you do?” The mid-tempo barroom confession “She’s Always There” finds Scott sinking farther: “And there’s no friend on this earth who’s got my back / Like the first cold beer in a six pack / I got nothin’ to give, but she don’t care / That bottle, she’s always there.”

The album closes with “Anything That Lasts” an aching, hitting-bottom-and-looking-up ballad, featuring just Warren’s acoustic and voice. As understated as it is, the emotional impact of lines like the one at the top of this review invites comparisons to the acoustic version of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” (Yes, it’s that powerful.)

Warren’s vision is realized with sharp support throughout from Jeremy Middleton (bass), Paul Niehaus (guitars), Dillon Napier (drums/percussion), and Adam Wakefield (organ and accordion), with the album’s spare, organic production—which frames these songs beautifully—coming courtesy of Middleton, with an assist from engineer John Little.

War Surplus is no easy listen, but its rewards are rich and lasting. A gripping story masterfully crafted and sung with raw passion and beauty, it’s tough and fun and sweet and harrowing and depressing and affirming and steadfastly real. It’s music and art that does what those things always do at their best: invite you into a world that isn’t yours, and convince you to care about it like it was.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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