by Huw Baines (@huwbaines)
In some quarters, rock music has entered a retro-futuristic phase. Bobbing in the wake of the War on Drugs, Haim and others, artists are navigating a world where west coast jams are still a vital currency and delivering records that are warm, lived-in and broadly optimistic. Essentially, there’s sunshine outside the window and everyone has a concrete opinion on whether the Eagles or Jackson Browne did “Take It Easy” best.
You, Forever is an interesting addition to the catalogue. A more considered piece than Premium, Sam Owens’ bow as Sam Evian, the record’s low-slung, soporific delivery masks a meticulous streak a mile wide. There aren’t any rough edges caused by ill-fitting shapes here, and none of the willful guitar abandon of his old band, Celestial Shore. Even when he gets into it with himself, or the world behind that sunshine, he is a steady hand at the wheel.
The LP was recorded on a borrowed reel-to-reel eight track at the height of summer, and the songs have the happy illusion of being effortless and open. Tuning to a Rhodes in the room and working within the limitations of the apparatus, Owens marshalls his band beautifully.
On this evidence he is a Jackson Browne guy, but possibly only out of necessity. Those multi-tracked Eagles hooks are a bridge too far at the moment, yet these inward-facing songs still have the capacity to conjure widescreen imagery. Through a watertight rhythm section, heavy-lidded guitar lines and seamless harmonies, he crosses paths with some classic American tropes without leaving the living room of his rented place in upstate New York.
Owens trades in personal insights and repurposed rock archetypes, crafting a space with plenty of grey areas. Nothing here is simple, even if at the end of it all You, Forever can broadly be considered an album driven by, and about, love. It’s certainly romantic at times, but it also details how we can fall hard for a place, or the mechanics of a song, or a long-held daydream.
On the opener, “IDGAF,” Owens’ struggles with insomnia preface an appeal to the open road and an endpoint with someone who cares about him. “I look through the window to the coming dawn, feel my body tingle ‘cause these days I don't sleep through the night,” he sings. “I should be a driver, I drive so true. Life's just an empty road, in the end it will lead back to you.”
With “Where Did You Go” the urge to escape is more insistent, like an itch that can’t be scratched. It’ll chime with anyone who spends the warm months of the year working in a cubicle. “There isn't much in the world that I need,” Owens sings. “But a real fast car can be everything.” The skronky “Health Machine” doubles back on this idea, though, adding context through the eyes of a touring musician who is enjoying the trappings of the road a little too much. From the van, Owens adds: “I look over to my best friend, they have weakness, they are pale and tired.”
He pairs an apparent desire to be unfettered - to be ‘free’ in the sense of dropping responsibilities in favour of a cut and run - with a lingering sense of personal accountability. You, Forever might appear to be the product of blissful collaboration and open-mindedness, for example, but it was still a DIY affair that needed managing. Lyrically, too, there are flashes of Owens lusting after stability. “And this life is such a mystery,” he sings. “But I don't feel so fucked up as long as I'm next to you.”
There is another notable urge here: to be understood. Bouncing between the factory floor and an ‘outlaw’ ideal on “Anyone,” Owens laments: “But who will look out for me? Who knows my name? Is there anyone out there who knows my kinda pain?” That is a worry that doesn’t require specifics, but also one that is particularly pointed in the context of Trumpian America’s wide-reaching sham artistry.
And the album, for all its wistful charm, is consistently beset by that sense of anxiety. “I don't have any country,” Owens says during “Next To You,” “I did but it tore me up.” On “Country”: “I don't feel right in society, the twisted world. Fuck the guns and mythologies, the old time fears. The things we think we need.”
You, Forever is an understated, beautifully crafted record that aims to continue the grand rock tradition of socially-conscious songs that still transport you to a road hugging the coastline. Largely, it succeeds in doing so. Owens’ writing here is golden-hued and slow-moving: it’s happy to take its time, even if that means lingering somewhere you’d rather not for a minute. There is a confidence that it’ll get to you eventually, and it’s not misplaced.