Among The Faceless Crowd

Ben Bostick

Independent release, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Three independently-released albums into a promising career, Ben Bostick is drawing comparisons to the likes of Johnny Cash from at least one reviewer—or at least, he’s about to.

There’s a lot to say about Bostick’s new album Among The Faceless Crowd, but the first thing that struck this listener was the haunted quality of these songs, and the mature and thoughtful craft that went into writing them. Bostick is a much younger man, with none of Cash’s legend built up around his name, but listening to these songs I couldn’t help thinking of The Man in Black in the twilight of his days, still raging against injustice, but in a quieter voice, in a solemn cadence, patiently fashioning hymns to his own despair.

The contrast between this mostly acoustic album and Bostick’s previous outing Hellfire—muscular honky-tonk country-rock that’s hard-edged enough to knock Hank Williams’ whiskey glass clean off the bar”—is evident from its first gentle note. Says Bostick: “This album is the sad cousin of Hellfire… Whereas Hellfire was about pent up rage blowing up into a furious night of drinking, fighting, and bad decisions, Among The Faceless Crowd is the hangover. It’s the daily grind, the repetition and quiet desperation of life among the faceless crowd.”

Bostick’s songs again stand up individually while also serving as chapters in an overall narrative. The first five establish our protagonist’s state of mind—worn down by his daily routine and restless for change—while the second five explore the fresh series of questionable decisions that result. In each case the arrangements are spare: Bostick’s pleasantly lived-in voice, acoustic guitar, and occasional, mostly unobtrusive percussion.

Opener “Absolutely Emily” finds Bostick’s unreliable narrator working to charm his lover with a string of earnest apologies and expansive promises, culminating in an unlikely fantasy of escape: “Pack your bag up, Emily / I know a place / That’s far away / We’ll live high on a hilltop / We’ll never go to town / I promise, Emily.” The downward spiral you can sense is coming appears immediately in “Wasting Gas,” an evocative story-song in which our narrator loses his job but keeps getting up and leaving the house every morning because he’s too humiliated to reveal the truth to his current partner. Instead he drives around all day, sometimes stopping to peer in the windows of the mansion where his ex Emily now lives.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

By the next song he’s back to “Working For A Living” to a backbeat of rat-a-tat percussion and handclaps imitating a nail gun: “Eight bucks an hour is what I’m worth / Puttin’ shingles on houses I can’t afford.” The bigger picture comes into focus on the loping “I Just Can’t Seem To Get Ahead”: “They say if you work hard, there’s some ladder you climb / But I’m not convinced there’s any ladder to find.” Side one ends with the decision to cut out for “The Last Coast” as Bostick’s narrator declares that “I’d rather be lost out there than lost at home / Least I’ll be lonely in a different place.”

The deceptively calm cadence of “The Thief” only underscores its central drama as Bostick’s narrator concludes his only choice is to break bad: “If I could find a way, an honest way, I’d take the job today / But they don’t want me or nobody like me / With a tenth grade education and a rap sheet / So I take unnecessary things / From those who can afford to lose their necklaces and rings / I ain’t no Jesse James / I just looked my options through / I’ve got two kids and a wife / Who deserve a decent life / So I do what I gotta do.” The combination of weariness and gentle steel in his deep voice here feels like it taps into the essence of late-era Cash.

Bostick’s sharply picked acoustic melodies remain bright even as the narrative continues to darken through “Central Valley,” “Too Dark To Tell” and “Untroubled Mind,” with the strongest lines coming in the former: “So yes I’m guilty / But I ain’t sorry for what I done / I needed the money / More than the men I took it from / I didn’t mean to hurt no one.”

Stark, minimalist closer “If I Were In A Novel” features only organ, bells, and Bostock’s carefully modulated voice as he describes in metaphorical terms just how far he’s fallen in his own eyes: “If I were in a novel / I wouldn’t be the hero… I wouldn’t be the villain… I would be the nameless clerk / A shadow passing by / Unnoticed in the milling around / Among the faceless crowd.”

I’ve avoided the comparison until now, but it’s inescapable: the haunted feel and moral complexity of these songs inevitably bring to mind Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. It’s a point of comparison one should never make lightly, but it’s merited here thanks to the exceptional craft and affecting power of Bostick’s songs.

Drawing inspiration from the sharpest, toughest moments found on his previous two albums, Among The Faceless Crowd strips Bostick’s music down to its essence while placing the focus squarely on the compelling stories he tells with a novelist’s precision. It’s hard, heavy, cinematic and thoroughly compelling.

Rating: A-

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