Album Review: The Painted Desert by Andrew Osenga

(2018) The Painted Desert

More than a decade ago, I drove with some friends to one of Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God concerts at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. To this day, it is my favorite place in the world to watch a concert. There’s something magical about the otherworldly acoustics in the room and the hardness of the old pews that mixes together and makes it feel like you’re on the front row now matter where you are in the building.

During the in-the-round portion of the evening, a guitar player got up and played a mesmerizing song about a small town and its high school marching band. It felt like I was listening to a short-story set to sync with a Bruce Springsteen record. There was just one guy with an acoustic guitar on stage but the song expanded somehow and filled the room. Later on, this same guy came out and played electric guitar and sang harmonies for the BTLOG song cycle and, by the distorted volume swells on the third song, I was hooked.

I went to the merch table after the show and bought a record of his called Photographs. We listened to it on the way home. I was early on in college and songs like “Kara” and “Kankakee” made me ache for the hometown that like so many students experience, is never quite what you so fondly remember when you return after a few years.

Fast forward to 2018 and Andrew Osenga’s music is still making me ache for home. His new record, The Painted Desert, is a mature, well-crafted album that is as thematically tight and self-aware as any singer-songwriter record I have ever heard. In describing the genesis of the album, Osenga writes:

“I thought I was done making records. I felt I had said all I’d ever have to say. Then life happened. The past few years have felt like wandering in the desert, in a myriad of ways. I had to face some hard truths about myself and ask some hard questions, about who I am, what I believe, and what I’m called to do…The Painted Desert is, I pray, the album version of conversation with a friend where you have the freedom to be real with doubt, fear AND hope.”

This “freedom to be real” is an excellent thesis statement for this record and comes through beautifully in the lyrics, several of which made me cry on both the first and fifth listen. “The Year of the Locust” is a standout for me with lines like:

Take comfort and rest / When the heart is an uncivil war and you’re taking a beating
Blood red on your chest / He will restore the years the locusts have eaten

Another emotional highlight for me was the opening track, “Beautiful Places,” an exhortation to Osenga’s daughters to both know their family story and to find their own adventures in the world. As a dad to a little girl myself, I was wrecked by this line:

So grab some life insurance money / Call your sisters, and cross things off the list
Scatter my ashes in beautiful places / it’s the last gift I can give you
Beautiful places

The image of my little girl standing on our shoulders, acknowledging the beauty and brokenness of her parents’ story while discovering her own place in the world, will stick with me long after this record ceases to be new.

One of the crowning achievements lyrically for this album is its ability to walk the narrow line between relatable vulnerability and something more self-indulgent. As a fan of more aloof folk songwriters like David Mead or Josh Ritter, a line like “And if you love me, well, I am sorry / ‘Cause there’s no way I haven’t let you down” (“Mercy”) feel deeply candid and personal without crossing the line into over-sharing.

While artists like Ritter appear to maintain strict “show don’t tell” rules around their writing, disappearing completely behind narrative songs and more obtuse imagery, The Painted Desert feels like it was written by an artist who wants to be known by the listener. It pays off immensely upon repeated listening and, at least for me, achieved Osenga’s mission of creating space to “think, feel, and remember.”

One last highlight: I will be surprised if there is a better complete folk song written this year than “My Bittersweet Old Friend,” which combines beautiful acoustic finger-picking, layered vocals, melodies doubled by piano and electric guitars, and incredible lyrics like:

I’m listening are you calling? Am I just waiting
While hope is there within the longing?
My bittersweet old friend

Speaking of instrumentation, I am tempted to describe this album as “stripped down” compared to other records Osenga has released. But, honestly, I am not sure I even noticed the lack of traditional drums until they suddenly showed up at the perfect moment in the final track (“Give Up”). Some songwriters go for a smaller-scale approach in recording as a way to create intimacy but the end result is instead stale and lacking imagination.

This album is the opposite end of that spectrum. The production is complex and beautiful and each song feels like a complete thought. Though the instrumentation is perhaps minimalist in theory, the interplay between the lushly-arranged vocals and the ambient electric guitar lines, both staples of Osenga’s music, make every song feel like it would be equally appropriate in a coffee-shop or a stadium.

I could go on about The Painted Desert but this feels entirely too long already. Check out some of his previous music on Spotify or Apple music and then go support his new project on Kickstarter. He also has an incredible podcast called The Pivot that features interviews with fascinating artists, entrepreneurs, and more – find it wherever you download your podcasts.

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