This spring, it was announced that the Constantines were sort of getting back together. If this announcement means anything to you, then it means a lot to you. Especially here in Guelph, where in the early noughts this power outage love-child of Fugazi and Springsteen gave a playful but meaningful shot in the arm to the local music scene, and quickly went about chucking everybody everywhere on the bicep. The quiet declaration a few years ago that they were not going to be a band anymore was a a bummer, but now they're sort of back and reissuing a cherry version of bonkers second album, Shine A Light. Good for the Constantines, and good for everyone who loves the Cons.
Now that that's out of the way, Bry Webb has a new album out, you guys. The announcement of the Cons reunion dropped around the same time as news that the follow-up to Webb's first album, Provider, was imminent. The Cons coming back is a big deal, but so is the release of Free Will, and these big deals should not compete. One is the celebration of an old important thing, the other is a celebration of a new important thing.
For all the Constantine's joyful havoc, maybe the deftness of songcraft might've been lost on some kids. Webb's solo work--as well as fellow Con Steve Lambke's Baby Eagle stuff--makes that prowess clear, laying out the clarity, caring, and intelligence that always thrummed under any flexing the Cons did. In this way, Provider was not really a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention, but a soft and strong affirmation of Webb's chops. These were the songs of a new father, a new provider, and the songs sound hushed, as though they're being played to get a child to sleep or in the other room, careful not wake one up.
As a sophomore solo release, Free Will, is the proof-ful pudding of a twenty year career. If Provider was a new voice with an old confidence, then Free Will is all the way assured. The advances made from that first album are not outrageous, as there wasn't a whole lot to improve on, but they are important. Maybe the best example of this gentle shift is the amount of softness and care Webb's allowed into his voice. His gravel road is naturally curving into a green space where we're all welcome to come hang out.
Webb's allowance of fragility and lightness into a notoriously burly vocal complements the small, casualness of his subject matter. It's biographically convenient to drag fatherhood into talking about Free Will, but in some ways Provider does sound like a guy carefully and proudly learning to be a father--or a guy learning to be alone with his voice--while Free Will sounds like a man comfortable with his fatherhood, comfortable with how he sees the world (which, of course, includes concerns about the world) and how he and his fit into that place.
That's great that the Constantines are playing some shows again, but holy hell, don't let that get in the way of what an accomplishment Free Will is.
Andrew Hood is the author of the short story collections Pardon Our Monsters and The Cloaca and a forthcoming book about Jim Guthrie, Who Needs What.