The former Dead Confederate frontman surveys his tangled personal history and uncertain future on a Southern glam rock album that is the highlight of a frustrating career.
T. Hardy Morris may have chosen the title of his new album simply for the pun, but perhaps he really did recognize himself in Jude Fawley, the doomed protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure. Both men are products of the provinces, Jude hailing from the fictional English county of Wessex and T. Hardy from the Deep South. Just as his fictional counterpart dreamed of fame as a scholar, the musician strove to invade the rock mainstream with his band Dead Confederate. Jude went through marriages the way T. Hardy goes through musical acts, including the super-ish-group Diamond Rugs and his recent backing band the Hard Knocks. However it was intended, the title evokes long and futile toil toward an unrealized dream.
Fortunately, Dude, the Obscure is neither a book report nor a history lesson, neither a concept album about professional disappointment nor a literary song cycle. Rather, it plays like a meditation on rock’n’roll in midlife, by an artist who might be nursing lowered expectations or even gaping emotional wounds but not diminished artistic ambitions. This may be Morris’ best record; it’s certainly his most complex and compelling statement, surveying his tangled personal history and the uncertain future that awaits. “I have only death ahead of me, I have only life behind,” he muses on the opener “Be.” “My one and only certainly, and the feeling is sublime.”
Considering its subject matter, Dude could be a real downer. What light breaks through the darkness comes from the music itself, which generally avoids the Southern rock riffs of Dead Confederate in favor of a more distinctive and wide-ranging sound—call it Southern glam rock. Morris doesn’t rely on the guitar as much as he has in the past; it’s there, of course, strumming solemnly on “Cheating Life, Living Death” and stabbing relentlessly on “When the Record Skips.” More often, it provides texture and fanfare, leaving ample room for other instruments. On “The Night Everything Changed,” a travelogue of wasted and forgotten nights, the pedal steel sounds like a synth. The rhythm section borrows a drum-and-fife snare beat to give “Be” the feel of a procession through harsh territory, then adds a queasy pulse to the redemption-seeking closer, “Purple House Blues.”
It’s a quiet album that inhabits the weird headspace of a person who’s just waking up or has begun to nod off—a space where memory gets dodgy and submerged worries bubble up to the surface. Morris’ reedy twang sounds comfortable in this strange territory, even when he’s facing down hard truths about marriage, music, life, death, and obscurity. “Homemade Bliss” is an unabashed love song (“Wherever it is that you are standing, that is the center of the earth”), but even its cries of devotion are freighted with a sense that these bonds are only temporary, that they’re fading even as he sings. That undertone makes the song’s hook—a sharp, shouted “And I love you!”—come across as desperate and triumphal at once, the battle cry of the romantic as well as the skeptic.
Especially after 2015’s Drownin on a Mountaintop, with its hurried production, meta asides, and half-baked lyrics, the sharp focus of Dude is refreshing. If the album makes for an occasionally uneasy listen, that only speaks to its authenticity: Anyone who’s ever lain awake at night wondering where their life is going will feel a cringe of recognition in these songs.
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