Once and future Constantines frontman Bry Webb opens his second solo record with a song called “Fletcher.” Like many of the best songs Webb wrote for his old band, it’s a song of defiance and a testament to individual will, and it’s buttressed by the kinds of ready-made credos that turned Constantines songs into statements of purpose: “What I need I carry with me,” he sings at one point, later adding, “Tell trouble what I’m about.”
Unlike just about every Constantines song, though, “Fletcher” is a gentle thing. It moves patiently on fingerpicked acoustic guitars, the only hint of dissonance coming from a processed hurdy-gurdy that resides well below the action. Much of Free Will follows the same tack: These are hard-nosed songs sung softly, different in tone though hardly in intent from the rest of Webb’s body of work. It’s also something of a return to form after 2011’s Provider, Webb’s first solo record, whose stark aesthetic often made it difficult to hold on to. Free Will is far more open and playful — pedal steel lines strap a wooly noise solo into place in “AM Blues,” and another layer of hurdy-gurdy lends texture to “Let’s Get Through Today” — and it bears its own lightness with dignity. “Positive People,” which Webb wrote years ago as a satire of what he assumed to be the dullness of domestic life, is as much a goof on the younger Webb’s naivete as it is on the elder Webb’s penchant for naming songs after his son. It’s hard to imagine him selling the line “Strength through boredom/Strength through joy” nearly as well as a young man.
The deeper joys of maturity — with its honors, duties, boredoms — have always been at the heart of Webb’s work. “I’d much rather write a song that pays tribute to someone I know who is surviving in an interesting way, or who navigated a particular situation really well, than rant about something that pissed me off,” he told Pitchfork in 2008. “Survival” is the key word there. Life never came easy to anyone in a Constantines song, and on Free Will, Webb presents simple triumphs — fatherhood and spousal love, say — not as singular events to be celebrated so much as facts that must be sustained by consistent effort. It’s an extraordinary thing to hear him sing his young son into “the places where I can’t protect you” in “Let’s Get Through Today.”
Webb’s singular talent is to sing in assertions, and he does so frequently here. “We’ll dress only in linens/And make peace at our beginnings,” he sings in “Big Smoke,” “And never damn a single thing.” He promises action and imagines a future. The consistent, sustaining effort is the only way to keep from being massaged into disengagement, and it requires the resolution to keep dislodging what inertia embeds into you. Paradoxically, that means constancy, the perpetual walking in the direction of a concrete hope. “What flag would hang over this house,” he sings in “Fletcher,” “but one that burns eternal/To further smoke my conscience out/And further from civility/Into what wild I am about.”
A fletcher is someone who makes arrows. He’s an ordinary person, a craftsman. But he makes an exceptional thing. He sharpens, he sets gauges, he makes an instrument able to pursue a chosen path without deviation. This isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. But even when Constantines were at their most anthemic, they were never rock stars. The old yarn used to go that Webb sounded like Springsteen fronting Fugazi, and there’s always been some aesthetic truth to that. But the more compelling truth is that, like those two acts, what drives Webb is the attempt to articulate the pursuit of a well-lived life. Like much of his catalogue, Free Will is entertaining, but it’s hardly diverting. It arcs toward its target. words / m garner