Reviewed by Mae Hunt
Arlo McKinley’s soulful album, Die Midwestern, is chock-full of vulnerability and brutal honesty. Released on August 14th and recorded with Oh Boy Records, the 10-track album contains songs reminiscent of indie folk (We Were Alright) and others that are cut and dry country (She’s Always Around). The album highlights McKinley’s versatility, which is also evident in his Post Malone and Rihanna covers! In all, the album can get just about anyone feeling both sentimental and appreciative of good music.
In 2014, McKinley released his debut album with his band The Lonesome Sound, which turned into nominations for Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Best Americana Act from the Cincinnati Music Awards. Since then, McKinley has performed alongside musicians including Tyler Childers, John Moreland, and Jason Isbell. The highly anticipated Die Midwestern speaks volumes about McKinley’s talents. I particularly enjoy the intensely personal look McKinley gives us of his life as he often reflects on his experiences living in Ohio and breaking free from ties there.
Let’s start with the title-track, Die Midwestern. The bluegrass song begins with light-hearted instrumentals – a guitar, violin, and keyboard – just the right ingredients to create a classic country cocktail. The lyrics reflect on McKinley’s rocky relationship with his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. He sings: “I’ve been thinking that I should go, ’cause if I don’t leave now I’ll never leave Ohio.” This song is a great segway into the rest of the album as it introduces the physical place where many songs take place.
The raw and emotional Bag of Pills is a frank reflection of the drug abuse plaguing his home town and impacting both his loved ones and himself. He begs, “Hell Jesus, can you save me? Didn’t think so, guess that you’re busy.” The stark contrast between powerful instrumentals and voice-cracking vocals emulates the rockiness and unsteadiness of drug use. The passion and grief McKinley puts forth in his vocals tells me how close to home this song hits.
Similarly, The Hurtin’s Done shares the harsh realities of mental illness (without glamorizing it, might I add). In chilling lyrics, McKinley sings: “Ghosts that still haunt me, I’ll fight one by one, ‘tiIl the hurting is done.” In so many of his songs, including this one, his voice is paired with simply a guitar, emphasizing the loneliness of the lyrics.
Finally, what is a classic country album without a little heartbreak? Songs like Whatever you Want and Once Again detail the different waves of falling in love. In the slow, violin-based, ballad Whatever You Want McKinley shows his romantic side and admits to being so in love he will do whatever she wants, almost giving himself up. Once Again shares that softness and vulnerability by expressing the simultaneous fear and hope that loving again may bring. Mckinley croons: “My heart is rusted I’ve been broken and I’ve been busted. But if you tell me that I can trust it, maybe this heart can love once again.
Despite overarching themes of grief, McKinley includes glimmers of hope towards the end. In the final track, Walking Shoes, McKinley sings “I don’t wanna get high anymore, I don’t wanna fight anymore, I don’t wanna settle old scores I just wanna come home.” He appears transformed – ready to mend relationships and better himself, moving onto bigger and better things!
Listen to and buy the album here.