Little darling, I’m along for the ride/You’re the one I want to be quiet beside/Rest your head until you dream of a rhyme/So many sparrows, so little time.
And so opens Justin Rutledge’s stunning new album Valleyheart. Easily, the best of album of 2013 so far and well in the running to land on top when the year comes to a close. Valleyheart is an album that sounds like a tribute to loss and a quiet whisper in the night time to a lover you wish you still spoke to or wish you didn’t want to. Maybe Valleyheart isn’t a breakup record and I didn’t ask Justin Rutledge what it was about. What it’s about is up to the listener and for Rutledge Valleyheart is, “an album of people just playing music together. “
It was a pleasure to speak to Rutledge about his album. He is a smart and delicate artist who well understands his craft and his job as a songwriter. For Rutledge it is never about the money or being a rock star. In fact Rutledge couldn’t “give a flying fuck about making money” and he continues to experiment across all artistic planes. In the time between the particularly stunning Early Widows and Valleyheart Rutledge dove headfirst into acting and worked with some of the best of actors, directors and creators in Canadian theatre. He now counts powerhouse novelist, poet and playwright Michael Ondaatje among his dear friends. And he manages to tie all that experience back to Valleyheart’s creation, “It took me out of my own head and that’s what feels so cool about [the new record], it made me feel comfortable about what I do. I was able to take three years away and just go, ‘oh, you know what, I just want to write a record I feel happy with.’ Take three years and just write some songs.”
And maybe Rutledge’s foray into theatre and that kind of narrative construction helped mold Valleyheart into the cohesive record that it is. The true beauty of Valleyheart is its completeness. Each of Rutledge’s albums are clever musical novellas with a clear beginning, middle and end. And when you reach the end and the tears dry you push pause and realized that the experience of Valleyheart was both complete and endlessly satisfying. This construction is no accident: Rutledge is “an album kinda guy”. “There is a trajectory” he says, “there’s definitely a chapter by chapter thing going on, and it’s an unapologetically slow, contemplative record. It’s a very sparse record. And with Valleyheart it really is all about the words. ”
Because Rutledge is so measured in his approach to making an album and because Valleyheart was so long in gestation it is difficult to find a song on this album that struggles to keep up with the others. The low point of the album is “Downtown”, which falls in the latter part of this near perfect composition. The attempt at whimsy and a pop song feels a bit out of place on what Rutledge himself called “unapologetically slow”.
Valleyheart isn’t a long record but it is a beautiful one. The standouts on the album are the opener, “Amen America”, the middle child, “Kapuskasing Coffee” and the closing moments of “Heather in the Pines”. But, the two true highlights of this album are “Travel Light” and “Through With You”.
In “Travel Light” Rutledge meditates on the possibility of end. All things end (or don’t) and you never know when they might. “Travel light/Near or far/Day or night/I’m not saying I’m leaving/I’m just saying I might/Travel light”. The melodies sweep along and at the end of the song you wonder if bags are packed somewhere, for someday.
In “Through With You” Rutledge has created the anti-breakup song. Broken and sad but unable to let go, unable to be through with this love. And the bridge it is perhaps one of the most stunning moments in songwriting since the bridge in “Jack of Diamonds”: “Your mind is a book/Your body a page/Your fingers are pools/Your beauty a cage/I carry you home/When after the rain/The hemlocks are wet”.
Valleyheart is what an album should be. A photo album, a collection of snapshots brought together to tell a story of loss and love and the middle parts of Canada. Rutledge’s songs always feel like he’s writing about the middle parts of Canada. And maybe he is. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it well. And with that comes a challenge to his audience. What is the challenge of Valleyheart? In a busy, running, aching, hollering world Rutledge just wants you to listen: “sit down and listen to the record. That sounds like a simple thing to do but I would challenge someone to sit down and listen to the record, preferably with a bottle of wine (or whiskey) at a decent volume, with someone you love. “
Valleyheart is a series of beautiful contradictions: sparse and lush; lyrically complicated and musically simple; unapologetic and bathed in metaphor. “The songs that I write are the songs that I write,” promises Rutledge and he challenges us to keep up and to listen. Just to listen. And the beauty found in that listening is worth a moment away from the hustle.