Greensky Bluegrass‘ new album, Stress Dreams, howls to life like something conjured from the darkest corners of the soul. After the last two years, that’s certainly a place familiar to us all, though it remains to be seen if this stretch of time is going to have contributed as much growth for everyone else as it seems to have on the band for this disc. Some of Greensky’s finest work comes from an almost tortured musical viewpoint, so it would certainly be understandable if the band delivered an entire album of mournful, raw songs that fans already connect with so perfectly. Instead, the band delivered its most lyrically cerebral, musically diverse—yet somehow united—effort to date.
The opening track, “Absence Of Reason”, starts from a lyrical weakness and uncertainty achingly expressed in both words and the plaintive wails of Anders Beck on his dobro steel guitar. It’s at that point that vocalist Paul Hoffman turns the narrative corner and reveals his doubts spring from his desire to do better in service of another. It doesn’t take much more than a quick peek at his Instagram to realize what you’re hearing is a new parent seeing his world focus change. And what started out with a dark cry we now realize was merely new life being breathed into the world and a father instantly shouldering responsibility to light the way.
This turn to the light tonally is followed by the next track, “Monument”, and its eager insistence on beginning strong. A cautionary tale about the dangers of putting your faith in things not built on a solid foundation, the song itself is constructed around a thriving and thumping bassline laid down by the always steady Michael Devol. Each member of the band takes a moment in the sun advancing the sonic flag down the playing field.
The theme of new purpose and renewal crops up again on “Until I Sing”, though I believe more than just musicians can identify with a lost sense of identity over the last couple years. The core sentiments of “Restlessness, worthlessness, and lack of purpose” surely describe the feelings of a legion of folks out of work thanks to the pandemic.
Up next we have the eight-minute title track, “Stress Dreams“, and its foreboding throb of a bassline from the new contributor to the writing credits, Devol, intently building to some unknown place. Strains of piano filter through and stretch the sonic dynamic the farthest yet. The doubling of the melody from the pure, symphonic piano to the gritty, resounding banjo of Michael Bont is a magical mixture that dissolves into madness as the instrumentalization follows Beck’s dobro down a shady path of psychedelic instability before closing on a hopeful note or three.
At this point, someone remembered that bluegrass was literally in the band’s name and it was time for “Give A Shit” and a lil picking and a smidge of knowing grinning. Shaking off the heavy cloak of darkness figuratively and literally, the boys lean out into the midtones and have themselves a couple extended picks while throwing a sly wink from behind a perhaps more positive mindset than their songs might generally imply.
Dave Bruzza‘s baritone comes in like a dearly missed old friend for the waltz-like “Streetlight”. The stately pace of the instrumentation, from his own chords to the frenetic fills from Hoffman’s mandolin, swirl around questions of fulfillment and longing which haunt Stress Dreams. Bruzza’s voice has a strength to it here that seems to reassure the listener that though he sings of fear of scarcity his, and by association, our own resolution will carry us through.
“Worry For You” shows strong solidarity with humanity at large and within the band itself. In another clever underlining of instrumental structure underpinning lyrical presentation, Greensky uses full band harmonies to underscore the importance of standing together. Clear echoes of last year’s “Black Lives Matter” protests and our current struggles to get more than a third of the country to agree on anything at all may inform the lyrics but the unity of the music is the result of endless years on the road growing into brotherhood. It’s a pitch-perfect example of how to write a song about a hot button topic that we can all agree on, and as such, a mighty impressive and sadly rare construct.
“Get Sad” seems to function best as a word to the wise warning of the pitfalls of “musical method acting.” When playing with as many deep and often dark emotional tunes as Greensky Bluegrass does, there are surely nights when they have to summon their empathy from both within and without. These tracks of self-evaluation and soul searching will surely resonate with so many of us forced away from the worlds we had so loved before this “New Normal.”
Having a newborn presents so many human truths that need to be lived through to be understood, and that sort of inevitability seems to be behind the rushed pace of “Cut A Tooth”. It doesn’t take too long to see a parallel being drawn between the growing sentiment that society, particularly the “American Experiment,” needs to stop avoiding so many much-needed reality checks. Growing pains are a direct result of progress and without progress there is nothing but stagnation and decay. Better to live through a bad time than fail to achieve our truest potential for fear of what such ends might cost in the moment.
All these dark overtones get thrown out the window for the toe-tapping “New & Improved”. In what will clearly be a much-appreciated reason to scoot boots at Greensky shows for years to come, this rollicking track has all the hallmarks of a palate-cleansing burst of high-energy fun. The song breezes in with a Beck-Devol dobro-bass intertwining that is one of the better instances of alchemy you’ll see this year. After some interesting twists—including a dark musical alley of dimly lit isolation—urged on by Bont’s banjo, Hoffman rallies the band back to their bounciest bit of the entire disc.
Bruzza brings an aching guitar riff to open “Screams” from a place of real inspiration. Beck’s dobro manages to take that inspiration, at least in mood, and advance it in intriguing directions. Stress Dreams features several impressive instances of one player informing the next, no doubt coming from the years of onstage mutual improvisation. The recurring lyric “I need the screams in my ear, something real I can feel” once again hammer home the frustration of a band that spent three to five nights of their lives playing for the people who are suffering through a locked-down world.
Never let it be said that Greensky isn’t self-aware enough to know some fans have worried over the years at the darkness that permeates much of their catalog. “Grow Together“, along with several of the layered songs on Stress Dreams, should assuage those anxieties, at least as much as possible. Easily the most uplifting and hopeful piece in this collection of songs, the crescendos demonstrate the joy Greensky can generate when they put their minds to it.
If “Grow Together” was a sort of positive message about the final destination of the band, then closing things out with “Reasons To Stay” is a signal that there are still plenty of interesting roads left to explore along the way. Featuring a dense breakdown unlike most anything that precedes it on Stress Dreams, “Reasons To Stay” gives fans plenty of…uhm…reason to stay in their place out in the crowd…watching for dates and waiting for the next new direction that Greensky Bluegrass decides to take.
As much insanity in the world as there is right now, anyone attempting to write songs of this time, for the people experiencing all this isolation, doubt, and fear is sure to turn out dark, introspective material. While certainly a dark record, there is so much artistic growth lyrically and the ever-deepening synergy of the five musical voices of Greensky Bluegrass to put a ready smile on fans’ faces old and new alike. In the end, when there’s so much darkness around that’s the most wonderful thing a band can do for their fans…that anyone can do for anyone, honestly.
Greensky Bluegrass – Stress Dreams