Gravitational Forces: Mass-Market Music

Introduction

Gravitational Forces is Robert Earl Keen’s ninth published album, and his highest charting album to date, peaking at #10 on Billboard’s country listings, and number 111 on the Billboard top 200. The album debuted on August 7, 2001 and was produced by Lost Highway, which is a country music division of Universal Music. The album contains twelve songs, five of which are covers of popular country songs written by various artists. The album gets its name from the eleventh song on the album, which is a spoken word discussion about a sound check.
Being the most popular of Keen’s albums, Gravitational Forces was released when Keen’s popularity was expanding outside of his core group of original listeners in Texas. Additionally, the album uses a wide variety of traditionally country instruments not found in Keen’s previous work, including the banjo and the steel guitar, and several songs feature harmonica solos or accompaniments. Below is a list of the songs present on the album, with the original singer/writer noted, if applicable.

  1. “My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame” (Joe Dolce)
  2. “Hello New Orleans”
  3. “Wild Wind”
  4. “Not a Drop of Rain”
  5. “I Still Miss Someone” (Johnny Cash)
  6. “Fallin’ Out”
  7. “High Plains Jamboree” (Terry Allen)
  8. “Walkin’ Cane” (James A Bland)
  9. “Goin’ Nowhere Blues”
  10. “Snowin’ on Raton” (Townes Van Zandt)
  11. “Gravitational Forces”
  12. “The Road Goes on Forever”

Initial Impressions

The cover art for the CD packaging in which the album is sold is a simple, yet in my opinion, overused image of Keen behind what appears to be an old barn door with a cell-style window. The rear of the packaging is a much wider image, one of Keen standing in a desert in what appears to be his native Texas.REK_Gravitational_ForcesIMAG0616

Included with the CD is a booklet with the lyrics to each of the songs included on the album. This booklet stylized such that the lyrics are overlaid on top of images of what appear to be Texas, including long roads traversing the desolate Texas landscape, and storm clouds building over large, mountainous rock formations. These images all have a quite desolation to them, as all of them are landscape photos recolored to black-and-white; this artistic choice again conveys the subdued nature of the songs on the album, and connects them to Keen’s roots in Texas.  Both photos are staged so as to immediately connect Keen to the Texas audience which served as his core listening audience at the time of the album’s release. The artwork is substantially more subdued than the cover art on many of his other albums, many of which use very impressive photographs (Picnic) or creative artwork (Farm Fresh Onions). Unlike these albums, the artwork for Gravitational Forces seems designed to convey the laid-back country style of the album, which at the time was a bit of a departure for Keen.

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Song Impressions

The first song on the album, “My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame”, I think is one of the better songs on the album. The song has a very catchy and simple chorus that invites the listener to sing or hum along with the song. This particular song reminded me of the many gospel tunes so prevalent in Appalachia, not necessarily because of similar styles, but because it naturally creates an atmosphere were singing collectively is encouraged, and the lyrics have a meaning many can relate to. Specifically, the lyrics convey an easily relatable message about a person’s roots: my home may not be perfect or famous, but it is my home and it has a special place in my heart.

In my opinion, the variety of instruments used to form the instrumental accompaniment to this piece are far more interesting than the lyrics themselves; in fact, with the exception of the first song, most of the songs have excellent banjo, steel guitar, or harmonic solos or accompaniments, and many feature melodies and harmonies that, while typical of country music in their word choice, balance each other well and give the songs a memorable connection to the instruments’ roots. Unfortunately, the album is mixed in such a way as to completely overshadow these incredible accompaniments with Keen’s droning monotone lyrics that make each song almost indistinguishable from the last. Ironically, in Keen’s attempt to appeal to a more country music audience, he seems to have forgotten some of the defining features of both Appalachia and the Southern US: variety and individualism. Instead of embracing the many sub-styles present in both Appalachian and “country” music, Keen finds a few chords that he seems to like and repeats them ad infinitum.

I found the decision to include five covers on an album of only twelve songs a very interesting choice. Even more interesting, however, were Keen’s interpretations of these songs. Specifically, most of the songs Keen covered were popular songs with multiple interpretations already, and Keen chose to slow all of them down to what feels like half-tempo, reduce the emphasis on the instrumentals, and compress the vocal range into the same four or five chords used on the entire album. Having heard many other interpretations of these songs, it seems as though Keen tried to give the songs a mass-market appeal. In fact, although I did not like many of the other interpretations, they each felt more connected to the song’s roots than Keen’s versions, which felt like they were neutered for a mass-market radio audience.

Unfortunately, most of the songs in Gravitational Forces feel like promising songs with unique and interesting instrumentals that were neutered during the editing and production process to appeal to more than the standard country music audience. In fact, the entire album is so mellow and slow that it is almost completely non-memorable. This may be the album’s largest mistake: being so easily forgettable. This misstep is only compounded by the reality that there are some very enjoyable uses of instruments like the steel guitar and banjo, but you have to listen very carefully to appreciate the unique connection of these instruments to their roots since they are so overshadowed by Keen’s droning lyrics.

Conclusion

Gravitational Forces feels like an album with two conflicting goals. The first goal is to connect Keen to the country music roots of his native Texas, and to use a variety of instruments from the country music genre to do so. The second goal is to make an album with more mass market appeal. Unfortunately, the latter seems to have taken precedence over the former. The choices to mix the songs to emphasize Keen’s inoffensive lyrics and make the songs appeal to more people outside of Keen’s typical fan base seems to have been successful, however, since this album is his highest charting album according to Billboard. This album, therefore, serves as an excellent example that what is popular is not always what is truly good.

 

By John Spidi

 

References

“Gravitational Forces.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 June 2007. Web. 28 July 2016 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_Forces>

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