Kris Delmhorst’s new release BLOOD TEST describes a moment of reckoning and centering in the songwriter’s life, and in society as a whole. In her new collection, Delmhorst acknowledges the weary work of an intentioned life – and the new American dream of presence and perspective in a frenetic time.BLOOD TEST is Delmhorst’s first album of original material since 2008’s SHOTGUN SINGER. The intervening years witnessed the birth of her daughter with husband and fellow songwriter Jeffrey Foucault, and an accompanying shift in perspective.
“It’s not a record about becoming a parent by any stretch…only a few songs reference it even barely…but it’s an inescapable ingredient of where I’m writing from. Having a child affords a dramatically new view of yourself and your place – in your life, your family, with friends and surroundings. I don’t know how that perspective doesn’t inform any creative person’s work once they have it.”
The songs Delmhorst has delivered from this new vantage point speak of a deepened empathy, a broader perspective on the continuum of lives. The title track “Blood Test” strives to find authentic experience amidst the noise of modern life. “Saw It All” zooms out until whole universes of experience fit into frame. “Bright Green World” urges perseverance in the face of the impossible. “Little Frame” examines the way seemingly small actions can transform a life.
The album’s quietest moments cut deep. “Homeless” conveys profound compassion for the human condition, and “My Ohio” offers a devastating eulogy to a departed friend.
“Bees” holds a mirror to the frayed condition of the 21st century soul:
Well our dreams are full of bees, they’re full of buzzing bees,
When we gonna waken honey?
We’re on our knees, on our bended knees,
When we gonna stand up right?
Fields of poppies send you off to sleep.
Pray your holy road your soul to keep.
All the miles, all the restless miles,
When we gonna stop this running?
It’s been a while, been a long long while,
When we gonna break on through?
And the sky looks down on me and says
What are you doing with your one little chance to be free?
And I look up at the sky and say
What am I doing with my one little chance to be alive?
BLOOD TEST’s fresh perspective was realized sonically by Delmhorst turning to a totally new collaborator – friend and fellow songwriter Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron, New Multitudes). Parker brought two band members to Delmhorst: drummer Konrad Meissner (Brandi Carlile, The Silos) and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges, Lisa Loeb, Laura Cantrell, Son Volt). And together, the four shaped BLOOD TEST’s landscape.
“I was focused on paring things down to their elements, less flesh, more bone. So it’s just the four of us on BLOOD TEST, with very few overdubs, playing the songs and letting the imperfections be part of the story. We were new to each other as a band, and the songs were new to everyone, many of them even to me. So there’s a freshness and spirit of discovery in the tracks which I think shines through and which gives them a lot of life. It’s a situation that requires intense focus, listening, responsiveness if it’s going to work. Everyone involved brought these things and more.”
The spareness of the arrangements allows a wide range of dynamics in the songs, from the delicate duet of nylon-string guitar and pedal steel in “My Ohio,” to the glowering Hammond organ and brittle electric guitar of “Saw It All.” “Little Frame” floats the listener on a sonic hammock of easy drums and simple piano riffs, while “Temporary Sun” takes less than a minute and a half for Mark Spencer’s scorched-earth country-rock guitar to lay waste to the place. And Delmhorst is not afraid to take dynamic leaps within a single song, as evidenced by “92nd St,” which travels all the way from a single pulsing note on an acoustic guitar to a churning wall of distortion out of PJ Harvey’s playbook, and all the way back again.
That song, drawn from Delmhorst’s New York upbringing, had particular resonance during the recording, as the sessions were taking place just a few blocks from her childhood home.
“The studio where we made the record, Brooklyn Recording, turned out to be right in my old stomping grounds… I was getting coffee at the deli I used to go to high school, and then walking to the studio. It was a kind of vertigo feeling to be working there, a little dizzying, but also really satisfying; it somehow completed the circle.”
Geography aside, “92nd St” may also contain the thematic heart of the album – with its soaring chorus “There ain’t no real mistakes.”
For all the big questions that BLOOD TEST asks, it offers this conclusion: That everything we have done and seen and been and felt has led to this day. Who we are now. In this moment. That we have arrived. And we are right on time.