Once upon a time I was a huge Band of Horses fan.Everything All The Timewas a great album to me back in 2006, but thinking about it now, it’s hard for me to remember who the version of me was who was blasting “The Great Salt Lake” and meaning it. Back then I thought I wanted to be Caleb Followill or John Mayer and play referential Americana rock about being sad (I was) and oversexed (I wasn’t) for, like, a million people every night. I wanted to want to smoke cigarettes and not care about my grades. I wanted to be chill and always on the list for the parties. I wanted to be liked which, because I was 18, meant I wanted people to talk sympathetically about me when I wasn’t there. And for some reason,Everything All The Timepartially scratched the itch that I had for feeling lost but not too lost. Ben Bridwell never sounded like someone who had fallen down the well himself, he sounded more like someone who was there when someone else fell down the well and then wrote some songs about how crazy and sort of sad the whole thing was. He sounded casually reflective and cool in an older brother sort of way, like he would never get all that mad at anything you told him no matter how honest you were. He sounded put together and self-deprecating, like he was permanently 38.
As it turns out, he isn’t permanently 38, but he did turn that age this year, and a lot has changed for him as well since 2006. Band of Horses has become something of a big band, has put out a smattering of follow up records, and has wrestled with all of the requisite hurdles that come with learning that your band, like everyone else’s, will never completely find its feet. He’s also gotten married and had some kids so, from every moderately predictable angle, he's older and wiser now. And after talking to him for 30 minutes about everything from an apocryphal Rick Rubin phone call (it didn't happen the way you may have heard it did) to learning how to cope with the life of a famous musician in the context of a family, I was struck with just how accidentally right I had been all those years ago while wearing out their first album in my shitty ‘89 Volvo sedan. Ben isn’t trying to impress anyone here, which isn’t to say he isn’t trying to write great music. He just isn’t trying to make it seem like he’s more or less than he is, prompting me to imagine mid-interview that the titleWhy Are You Ok?is likely directed at himself more than it is at anyone else. He’s open about the way family and touring keeps your heart constantly halved, and jumps into a few quick snippets of talks with his wife about it. He’s ok saying he’s not even sure what the album is like any more after working on it for so long, and how he needed outside help from the likes of Jason Lytle and Rick Rubin to finish the project. He’s comfortable talking about his boundaries and the ways he’s still growing as both an artist and a man. And the whole time, I can’t help but think that I’m talking to someone who’s confident not because he’s ascended some outlandish height of transcendent self-actualization but because he’s finally come to terms with himself.
Why Are You Ok?is not a top 10 or 20 album of 2016, and I’m not writing this to convince you that it is. For myself personally, it’s probably going to appear in my top 50. Instead, I’m writing this to say that this album matters maybe for the same reasonEverything All The Timemattered back in 2006. Because there’s something true about Ben Bridwell that isn’t true of so many other songwriters in his neck of the woods. Something honest. Something backwoods-ishly pure. And in the midst of him jumping into a long rave about how great D.R.A.M., Raury, and Kevin Gates are (he apparently listens to rap as much as I do), I can’t help but think that this rant of his is one more reason I’ll probably be playing some of his music for my grandkids years from now. Because the guy is as humble and alive and excitable as anyone I’ve ever met, and he means every word of it when he says that he’s spent two solid weeks working on a personal compilation of a possible Best Of for Otis Redding deep cuts and he’s having a hard time trusting his picks. Because he admits that aside from how talented Jason Lytle is, he ultimately wanted to work with Jason because he felt like he could bro down with him and also express deeper thoughts/concerns to. Because he circles back to say how fucking great Raury is again.
AndWhy Are You Ok?is Ben back towards his best which, for me, is something that gets me pretty excited in 2016. I’m one of those music fans who doesn’t need every album from the bands I like to be groundbreaking or tremendous. Sometimes I’m ok with them just being pretty good to listen to. And while it no doubt sounds a little down-home or aww-shucks-ish to say that I’m genuinely happy this album happened and that I got to talk to Ben about it, I think that pretty much sums up my thoughts on it. I’m just plain-as-day glad that this band is still here.