Good stories are driven by a few key elements, but conflict is always at their heart. On Silvertooth, Ethan Daniel Davidson’s first new album in seven years, the newly settled folk troubadour weaves a number of classic struggles throughout: present vs. past, father vs. son, religion vs. doubt, new vs. old, light vs. dark, and who you are vs. who you might have been. There’s also the big one: life vs. death.
“Even before [my father] passed away, I’ve sort of been obsessed with mortality,” Davidson says. “The limited time that we have here, not really knowing for sure if there’s anything beyond that.”
Davidson is the son of William Davidson, the former Detroit Pistons owner and billionaire who died in 2009, not long after Ethan Davidson returned to the Detroit area to help run his father’s philanthropic foundation. The opportunity also allowed Davidson to take a break from an exhausting six-year, 900-show tour. In between his cross-country jaunts, Davidson decamped to a remote cabin in Wiseman, Alaska, almost 300 miles from the nearest power line. Not exactly Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous material.
Things have changed since his return. He now lives in a sprawling 1920s-era home in Oakland County, where he’s raising a family with his wife, Gretchen Gonzales Davidson, a fellow musician who also co-produced and played on the new record. The days of playing politically charged populist folk songs (in the grand tradition of Woody Guthrie) are behind him, traded in for larger themes. In sound and scope, Silvertooth is more Tom Waits than Tom Paxton, although many of its characters reflect Davidson’s wandering past: the familiar gamblers, bootleggers, and preachers who practice “ecclesiastical sleight of hand,” “selling folks salvation on a six-month installment plan.”
But rather than railing against the so-called “1 Percent,” which Davidson might have done on past records (he covered John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” on 2001’s This Machine Kills Fascists), he’s now writing from the other side. “It seems like every hand I shake is only groping in the till / Gold-plated future widows look for billionaires to kill,” he sings on the album opener, “Ain’t the Man I Used to Be,” immediately setting the cynical, dark tone that colors most of the album, and declaring to his listeners that he’s not so idealistic these days. Perhaps the most telling line comes halfway through the track: “I used to testify so loud that love and truth are free, but I ain’t the man that I used to be.”
The opener, which is one of the more accessible tracks on Silvertooth, flows seamlessly into the samba-like “Go Down in the Black Earth,” where things get even darker as we’re introduced to the aforementioned shady characters. In the end, it doesn’t matter who they are or who you are, because “we’re all going down in the black earth before too long.” (A little trivia: Pistons owner Tom Gores, who bought the franchise from the Davidson estate, makes an uncredited tambourine-playing appearance on the track. That recording session was the first meeting between the two men.)
Silvertooth takes us across the great North American landscape, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Cape Girardeau, Mo., with stops in Atlanta, Denver, Missouri, and Oregon along the way. The production, by Warren Defever (of the band His Name Is Alive), is equally expansive, with all the creaks and warmth of analog that are usually polished over in post-production digital sheen. The album is loose, combining the wails of drunken, New Orleans-style horns with a rambling percussion section that threatens to derail the whole thing in a thrilling, party-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff sort of way. But Davidson & Co. manage to keep the train chugging in a celebration of traditional music that defines Americana, much as the highways that connect the dots. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
The album’s peak comes at the beginning of the end, during Silvertooth’s most hopeful track, “’Til the Light Comes Shining In.” On it, Davidson’s voice uncannily resembles that of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, at least until the song’s rollicking last chorus, where the whole thing takes a turn into territory most recently mined by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes. “Light” ends as an uplifting, jangling sing-a-long, soaked in reverb and bolstered by a bopping bass line that might’ve been borrowed from The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” This is a song to add to the permanent rotation.
That isn’t to say there aren’t missteps along the way. “The Dogs Howl, The Caravan Moves On” is a throbbing, Krautrock-inspired track to nowhere. Davidson tests the boundaries of his lower register, and ends up getting lost. Similarly, “Your Old Key,” a contemplative ballad dripping with loss and missed opportunity, is perfectly wistful, until the chorus, where Davidson’s voice goes low again, lulling the tune into inertia. It’s saved by the musical arrangement, particularly the saxophone solo that sends the song off into the next track, “Will Your Trainwreck Run on Time,” a blissed-out slow burner that recalls Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ “Silver Bullets.” If Silvertooth has borders, they aren’t geographic ones. Rather, they’re defined by the limits of Davidson’s voice, which at times gets lost in the mix.
Still, the few lows on Silvertooth make the highs soar that much more, holding up against some of the best work Davidson appears to be referencing. It’s another element of tension that makes the album, and Davidson’s persona, so interesting.