While Robbie Fulks didn’t go anywhere in the past eight years—he digitally self-released a 50-song collection called 50-Vc. Doberman in 2009 and a compilation of Michael Jackson covers called Happy in 2010, and held a weekly residence at Chicago’s Hideout—he has kept a lower profile since 2005’s Georgia Hard, the last studio album he released through a record label. With its promo photos from Georgia Hard, even his website feels a little stuck in time.
That’s partly why Gone Away Backward feels so momentous. Back on Bloodshot Records, the Chicago indie that gave him his start, Fulks has also returned to his musical roots in folk and bluegrass, mostly ditching the amplifiers and drum kit for something closer to the music he played as a kid. While the instrumentation takes a more traditional approach (acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass), Gone Away Backward isn’t old-timey shtick. Crisply recorded by longtime pal Steve Albini, it’s a natural evolution of Fulks’ style, even though it’s ostensibly retro.
The acoustic instrumentation shows off his playing skill (particularly the blistering public-domain gem “Pacific Slope”) and lends the songs an immediacy and intimacy that’s tougher to re-create with a big, electrified band. “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” opens Gone Away Backward with understated tension; even without percussion to emphasize it, the song moves at a quick clip, with Fulks’ refrain, “It’s a short life and a long time underground” helping maintain an air of unease. That segues into the lamenting of “Where I Fell,” a Springsteen-worthy portrait of life inside a dying town. It pairs thematically with the fourth track, “That’s Where I’m From,” a remembrance of a hardscrabble country upbringing by a man whose success lifted him out of it. At six-plus minutes, it overstays its welcome and veers into country-life cliché (“That’s where I’m from / Where time passes slower / That’s where I’m from / Where it’s ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’”). Fulks has a reputation as a word-class smart aleck, but he’s never shied away from sentimental ballads.
But he’s best when he uses some of his formidable wit, like on the album standout “Long I Ride.” Fulks hasn’t reprised the acidic bons mots of “She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died),” “I Told Her Lies,” or “Parallel Bars” in some time, but his clever turns of phrase provide a welcome corollary to Gone Away Backward’s sentimentality. “Long I Ride” is a banjo-propelled tour diary of sorts that makes its refrain, “It’s a long to ride for the little I gain,” sound celebratory, even when it sneaks in a skeptical line about the afterlife at the end: “And they say there’s a wondrous land for any good man that dies / And if it’s got drink and women, well then I’ll be surprised.”
Recorded in three days and stripped down to folky fundamentals, Gone Away Backward may be Fulks’ most cohesive, best-realized album yet. More than anything, it’s good to have another album from one of country music’s best-kept secrets. Next time, hopefully the wait won’t be so long.