Across the spectrum of sound, with mixed quality
If there was an album that Goodnight, Texas needed to drive home, it was this one. Coming off the heels of an inclusion on Tiger King and a Metallica cover album, never before has the group had a spotlight on them quite as intense as this one. If they were trying to fully hook the audience that came to hear earlier works by the group like “The Railroad” and “Of Wolf and Man,” then they failed with How Long Will It Take Them to Die. While it presents plenty of darker, haunting moments, there’s none of that dramatic, dust-covered clanging sound. Instead Goodnight, Texas explores a wider sonic palette. Sadly, while the experiments produce some genuinely excellent songs, it also produces a fair share of missteps that leave How Long in a cluttered, potential-filled state.
It has always been difficult to pigeonhole Goodnight, Texas as they switch from easy-going singalongs to the tracks reminiscent of a gritty Western soundtrack. The one consistent with the group was their lyricism, featuring updated takes on familiar folk tales and character portraits with modern, dry wit. Their albums have gradually flowed from old-timey Civil War Tales to the present day; songs about getting trapped in a coal mine or a daring chain-gang escape.
In this album, the setting has changed, but the quality of writing has not. “Hypothermic” follows in the footsteps of Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather,” as a group defined by the South tackles new geography to great success. It captures the paranoia of a wanted man trying to escape to Alaska for unknown reasons, and vocalist Avi Vinocur’s staccato delivery does a great job of selling the out-of-breath exhaustion of its subject. “I’d Rather Not” highlights the frustrating inability to confront one’s vices even with the knowledge they are a hindrance. “Solstice Days” uses the same frosted geography, as a man remembers a deceased lover on the evocatively-worded “long dark solstice days.” Finally, “Dead Middle” uses a broken-down car as a metaphor for a relationship where both parties are aware they cannot go all the way yet they don’t regret taking the trip in the first place.
A good chunk of the experiments in the music succeeds as well, resulting in no song sounding the same. In addition to the delivery and writing, the atmosphere of “Hypothermic” is pitch-perfect with terse chords and a fantastic bridge of subdermal cymbal crashes and much heavier guitar strumming. “Borrowed Time” is built on a bouncy groove and perfectly placed distortion heralding a windswept hook with delightful harmonies. The vocal layering as a whole is effective, from the intimate cooing against the pedal steel and jagged playing of “I’d Rather Not,” to the mournful layering of “Solstice Days.” These songs have a great build to them, between the cacophony of notes on “Dead Middle” that somehow feels well-balanced to the final wall of vocals on “To Where You’re Going.” This is not a record where the quieter moments supersede the louder ones or vice versa; both modes are used to great effect.
Sadly, not all of the music is as well-executed, and it’s all the more jarring when a track is similar to another one, yet noticeably weaker. “Jane Come Down from You’re Room” is clearly going for the same intimate feel as “I’d Rather Not,” yet Vinocur is much closer to the front of the mix and peaks against the edges rather than feeling small. It makes sense for the lyrics as he confesses his sins to a child and hopes they can outgrow their poor parenting, but there’s no excuse for it to sound so poor. “Sarcophagus” is going for the same giant feeling as “Borrowed Time,” yet the fidelity of the rhythm section is muffled and lo-fi compared to the brighter vocals. The worst is “Don’t Let them Get You,” where the backing vocals take a nosedive into anonymity and feel plucked from half-a-dozen generic folk-rock bands against a rather dull acoustic melody, with none of the swells featured on some of the best tracks on the album.
According to Genius, this is their “first album which contains singles which were released throughout 2020 prior to the album’s full 2022 release.” Many albums are assembled this way, but the stitches should not be as visible as they are here. The best of How Long Will it Take Them To Die can go toe to toe with any of Goodnight, Texas’s best, so it’s not as if the album can be considered a failure, but it falls apart as a complete artistic statement.