When Nashville singer-songwriter Cory Branan wrote “The Vow,” he was processing the passing of his father, and reflecting on his relationship to him. (“My old man was young once/So the photo album claims”) The song could have been on his last record, 2014’s No-Hit Wonder, but Branan felt the song was too personal. What would audiences get out of it?
His wife felt all he needed to do was play it at some shows, which he did. Audiences loved it. The song is one of 14 tracks on Branan’s new record Adios, which he’s presenting appropriately enough as his “death” record. The title, Spanish for “goodbye,” kind of makes that clear.
Still, it’s a coincidence that so much of the album was themed around death—Branan hadn’t set out to write it that way.
“A lot of it was death itself, death of old lives, death of ideals, and what do you do with the pieces that are left over, Branan says. “It’s the theme I’ve been working on since the first record.”
In fact, he kind of laughs now at the idea that Adios is a death record, since he never called it that until it was finished and his management was asking him for info on it for the press release. They ran with it.
“They want to have a story to give to the press. I was like, well, you can call it a death record. It’s got a lot of it on it. It does oversimplify matters. It lets me know who actually listens to the record,” Branan says.
Apart from “The Vow,” which is a somber track, as well as a handful of others, musically the album has an upbeat tone. Even some of his darker material is performed like upbeat singalongs. “Another Nightmare In America” is a blunt indictment of police brutality. He focused specifically on unarmed black teens. Musically, the song sounds like the feel-good heartland rock tune of the summer.
“It tempts you to bop along and ignore the lyrical content, like we sort of bop along in our daily lives and ignore a rigged system. It’s got some weight without drawing attention to itself,” Branan says.
Aside from “Another Nightmare,” opening track “I Only Know” is the most powerful track on the record. Its connection to death is more metaphorical. The song, an almost radio-pop-rock song, talks about letting go of the past and moving forward. It also touches on what is the larger theme of the album: death and rebirth, which makes sense in his life. In addition to losing his father, he finds himself a new father.
“It was definitely personal for me, having done a lot of dumb things in life,” Branan says. “I’ve finally made some good choices. It was also looking at my kid and I was trying to find some sort of hope that’s not naïve, that’s tempered with the things I’ve seen—and put that in a balanced kind of pop song.”
One thing that has always defined Branan’s records was how jarring they were. This album is his most cohesive. Yet at the same time, he stretches his influences. There’s not much of the punky-Americana sound from his earlier years; he jumps around to rock, country, New Wave and pop. What connects it is a strong connection to eclectic ’70s rock music.
“I knew I wanted to make a record that had a lot of head room, like the ’70s records. When the band gets louder, the record gets louder. I was trying to inject a lot of life into it,” Branan says. “It was fun to make. The studio is never really natural and fun for me, but I was with great musicians, a great engineer.”
The album has a spontaneous element to it often lacking in modern rock albums. That, he says, is the product of him enlisting “overqualified, underprepared musicians,” meaning great musicians that he didn’t show demos to until they were in the studio.
What really gives the album life is how malleable it is stylistically. Branan, not wanting to write a “vaudeville” country album, as he calls it, allowed himself to go into whatever territory felt natural. As an example, he cites the song “Visiting Hours,” which sounds like a New Wave song.
“I always try to be authentic to the things that I love,” Branan says. “I grew up in the south, but I also grew up glued to MTV. I listen to everything. If it feels authentic to me to use it to get the song across, then I’ll use it.”
INFO: 9 p.m., June 14, Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.