Last autumn Justin Rutledge re-mastered and released on vinyl his remarkable first album, No Never Alone (2004). In doing so he re-encountered the purity of the soundscape and the youthful quality of the songwriting of that album. He describes fifth album Valleyheart as a conversation with that younger self.
The result is a work of quiet confidence, sure in its use of measured tempos and reflective lyrics, held lightly together with spare rootsy arrangements and a gentle but determined lilt. It’s an album that fits the current zeitgeist, when amidst the destruction of markets, economies and livelihoods, Rutledge grounds himself in a small corner of a vast continent to cherish memory and mental photographs of small moments.
No Never Alone was a gem of youthful exploration, a kind of wintery emotional travelogue from a young man at various points away from home and alone, trying on different ways to feel and think and seeing if they fit. Valleyheart is more of an explicit physical travelogue, taking in snapshots of the US as well as his native Canada, but it is emotionally more secure and able to look at itself with curiosity.
Opening track and single ‘Amen America’ establishes the spacious feel of the soundscape. Deceptively simple guitar chords and deft and delicate vocal lines underpinned by soaring harmonica convey a father and his daughter, a huge continent, isolation and the need to cling onto what you love on the journey.
Next up ‘Four Lean Hounds’ feels like a reference to earlier songs, considering precious moments as photographs not clouded by memory, “Just the weight of the light on the leaves”, with an upbeat measured tone and engagingly twangy guitar.
‘Getting away’ uses travel to dig deep into an elusive relationship and examine it from a distance – “You’ve got a way of getting away from me”, he concludes. ‘Out of the Woods’ is at the heart of the record and, with its dark archtop guitar chords, slide guitar and banjo, tells the misremembered and misheard fragments of a relationship, asking edgily “Is it true what has happened to you?”. ‘Travel Light’ continues the theme over six lines, “I’m not saying I’ll leave you/I’m just saying I might”. ‘Kapuskasing Coffee’ evokes a memory of love, Northern Ontario and billboard posters as a nagging memory – a tune that dances along with soaring fiddle lines.‘Through with You’ declares the unrealised possibilities of love, bringing the past together with the present with a fine vocal performance as he seeks to persuade.
Finally, ‘Heather in the Pines’ begins with the quietest acoustic arrangement, looking back reflectively at a character from No Never Alone, toying with the past and holding it as a thing of wonder. The album ends with a fading banjo line, just like No Never Alone did all those years ago.
As strong as Neil Young in his prime, but clearer and more consistent, Valleyheart is a record of quiet strength, affirming the small power of an individual in a huge landscape. It’s a record that is exactly right for our time, and is surely Rutledge’s best yet.