At first it looks like the briefest retirement ever.
Portland, Oregon's Richmond Fontaine called it a day after 20-odd years last autumn, at the conclusion of the tour in support of their fine final album You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing to Go Back To. Barely six months later, they're back again with a brand new record.
Turns out that Don't Skip Out On Me is far from a standard RF undertaking. It's an instrumental record for starters. There'll be no tour in support of it or any follow-ups: it's strictly curtains after this one. Much like an outlaw posse teaming up for one last job at the onset of a Western, our officially disbanded heroes agreed to regroup to provide a soundtrack for songwriter Willy Vlautin's new novel of the same name.
An all-instrumental project from a band primarily celebrated for their literate lyrics that detail compromised and constrained lives on the margins of American society might not sound like the most promising of premises. Yet Don't Skip Out on Me triumphs on more than one level.
A desolate and deeply moving story (think of a particularly downcast Townes Van Zandt ballad fleshed out to book form) of a young ranch hand betting everything on an impossible dream only to find out that you can change your physical surroundings but you can't ever escape who you are, Vlautin's latest novel is perhaps the most reminiscent of a Richmond Fontaine song of his five books to date. A beautifully executed slice of stark realism that virtually oozes sympathy for the hard and unhappy lives it's chronicling without ever even thinking about slipping into cheap sentimentality, Don't Skip Out On Me is an unfashionably intimate piece of classic storytelling, small and humble in scope but absolutely immense in its emotional resonance: a great American novel, rather than a panoramic, grand statement-making Great American Novel.
The record that shares its name proves a worthy and apt companion to the moving novel. It's richly evocative of the story it’s linked to: see how the stunning "Dream of the City and The City Itself" switches from high speed honky tonkin' to dust-blown desperation as the main character's optimistic expectations of big city living - opportunities, excitement, companionship and success - wilt into soul-crushing reality of poverty, squalor and indifference; the slow-motion coda is surely bound to be counted amongst the most heartbreaking sounds of 2018. See also how the main character's gut-wrenching downhill slide and eventual demise - spoiler alert! - is matched by how dejected and utterly devoid of hope the last few tracks sound. However, the melodies and textures - the standard RF four-piece is enriched by the tear-stained pedal steel of long term collaborator Paul Brainard, as well as keyboards and, on a lonesome and blue, reprised kind-of theme, weeping harmonica - enable the album to also excel as a stand-alone piece of music.
Richmond Fontaine's albums from 2004's masterpiece Post to Wire onwards flitted effortlessly from gutsy bar-room rock 'n' roll to threadbare folk, gritty country rock, pretty balladry, punk-hued power pop and all points in between. This has rendered the band's reputation as an alt. country act somewhat limiting. Until now: Don't Skip Out on Me is both the band's most sonically cohesive and most consistently - in search of a better term - Country-orientated offering since 2002's Winnemucca. However, they're operating with a wider palette and scope for nuance than ever before, turning Vlautin's plaintive melodies into a masterclass in widescreen Americana: one foot in the dust and the other on cracked pavement.
The beautiful results provide an appropriate epitaph for this much-loved and already missed outfit by proving conclusively that with Richmond Fontaine, the by turns wounded and scrappy sounds that breathed life into the world the words evoked were (and remain) just as remarkable and worthy of acclaim as Vlautin's peerless abilities as a songwriter (and now also a novelist). Don’t Skip Out on Me proves that Richmond Fontaine exit on a creative high: here's hoping for a speedy reunion.