By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
By Natalie Gallagher
By Erik Thompson
By Jeff Gage
By Loren Green
Mike Ireland & Holler
Every time a songwriter's marriage falls apart, we should all rejoice. It took John Prine two divorces to recover his writing chops. Steve Earle keeps marrying and divorcing the same woman, perhaps to keep him in material. Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash each came up with albums so remarkable (and eerily similar) after their marriage hit the skids that they should be forced to go through the whole bloody ordeal again.
Mike Ireland knows all about breakups: His wife ran off with one of his bandmates, for chrissakes. The result was his 1998 debut, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop), a bruising exposé of the emotional carnage left in the wake of a shattered relationship. Try Again is about the songwriter trying to find the balls to expose his heart again--and it's an uphill battle. This is a guy who on a first date is probably thinking about the inevitable day when they split up the furniture and fight over the dog. On the stark, gorgeous "I'd Like To," Ireland sings, "I've kept everyone out/For way too long/I've kept nothing but doubt/'Cuz nothing lasts long." He displays a similarly mournful stoicism on "Let Me Hold You": "You know the past won't change/And these dark clouds might rain/But I can hold you."
Ireland seldom strays from this emotional terrain, but when he does the results are equally affecting. The opening track, "Welcome Back," is the return journey of Earle's "Hillbilly Highway," a tale of leaving home full of piss and vinegar only to end up exactly where you started--but with a trunk full of disappointment weighing down the ride.
All these pretty words are backed up by a stellar group of musicians (but good money would wager that this time around they're a butt-ugly bunch). Nothing fancy going on here: standard country treatments, with Buddy Cage's steel guitar and Michael Deming's piano providing low-key flourishes. All the fireworks are reserved for Ireland's magnificent voice. When he climbs the scales and then lingers there a second longer than you expect, it makes your socks roll up and down. Ireland's voice is so fragile and raw at these moments that you keep waiting for it to collapse into sobs: If a wounded dog wandering down a deserted Southern highway on a blazing summer day could sing, this is what it would sound like.
By the end of the album, you want to wrap Ireland in a big hug and make him promise never, ever to fall in love again. Not even with a dog. But then you think about all the crackerjack songs we'd be missing out on and guiltily hope that at that very moment some devious woman is carving the guy's guts with a steak knife.