When Ryan Cullwell released his critically acclaimed 2015 album Flatlands, Rolling Stone hailed it as both "gorgeous and bleak," and the intervening years of the Texas native's life could be described in similarly contradictory terms. Culwell has touched the top and scraped the bottom, known true joy and faced pure sorrow, been blessed with luck and cursed by tough breaks. He welcomed daughters number three and four into the world, only to nearly lose his life working odd jobs just to make ends meet. It's been a beautiful, brutal time for Culwell, one that he's woven into the fabric of his most stunning songs yet with The Last American, his third album. Recorded in his adopted hometown of Nashville, the collection showcases Culwell at his finest, crafting poignant portraits of ordinary folks just trying to get by, men and women doing their best to make it through the day with dignity and self-respect in these trying times.
The album opens with the dreamy "Can You Hear Me," a reverb-soaked rocker that calls to mind the swirling soundscapes of The War on Drugs mixed with the anthemic drive of Bruce Springsteen. The LP's sound is a major leap from the stripped-down weariness of Flatlands, but Culwell pulls it off with ease, drawing on a cast of characters who are alternately motivated by hopeful promise and bitter resentment. On the relentless, fuzzed-out "Dig A Hole," he channels the anger and helplessness that run rampant in parts of the country looking for someone, anyone, to lash out at for their struggles, while the wistful title track presents a narrator tenaciously holding on to a past he (may or may not) be better off scrapping, and the deceptively charming "Dog's Ass" draws on the dark memories of a family who's livelihood was tightly hitched to the price of oil.
Despite its fascination with the dark underbelly of the American Dream, there remains an unshakable sense of promise on the album, an eternal spring of optimism that believes in better days to come. Songs like the gentle "Moon Hangs Down" and "Tie A Pillow To My Tree" began life as improvised lullabies for Culwell's daughters, and it's no surprise they hold the most beauty and wisdom of any tracks on the record.