Tuesday, April 30, 2024

With Anniversary, Adeem The Artist Adds More Challenging & Authentic Anthems To Their Already Compelling Country-Folk Catalog


Anniversary. 12 tracks. By Adeem The Artist. Four Quarters/Thirty Tigers. Out everywhere on 5/3/2024.

On the first Friday in May 2024, the skilled and spicy Knoxville songwriter known as Adeem The Artist brings us Anniversary, their follow-up album to the break-out sensation White Trash Revelry. 

Produced by the multi-talented Butch Walker (who has worked with Taylor Swift, Frank Turner, Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Pink), the record wraps a plurality of plaintively honest stories in addictive hooks at the intersection of country, rock, and folk. The rowdy full-band set includes several of Adeem's peers, including Jessye DeSilva on keys, Aaron Lee Tasjan on guitar, and Katie Pruitt on background vocals, among others. 

A catchy contrast to Adeem’s stripped-down live solo shows, Anniversary is all bold reach, with a bare and broken heart to balance bristling hooks, where they remain a complicated queer voice in a bustling and bursting Americana scene. Time and again, Adeem’s politics and pansexuality will push the most ostensibly inclusive festival-undercard to face lavender frills and lyrical thrills that reside far past comfy categories in scuffed boots and brown Carhartts.  

While words like queer, nonbinary, and pansexual can sometimes feel like they got crammed into the artist’s bio like boxes to check for us allies with rainbow stickers on their laptops, Adeem’s genius is far past cookie-cutter Pride marketing. And with each new album, we have such tender refrains that talk about what that “nonbinary country singer” tag actually means in terms of specific songs. From the sweetly homoerotic single “One Night Stand” to the neurodivergent kink of “Nancy” to the confessional therapy of “Wounded Astronaut,” the careful listener easily learns that there are no adequate boxes or cubby-holes for Adeem at all, but a wild and honest and occasionally hilarious odyssey through myriad complexities of intimacy and joy in human and romantic relations. 

For the serious fan who has studied their bio, meditated on their lyrics, or checked out Adeem’s extensive “pre-Adeem” back catalog on their Bandcamp, we know that Adeem The Artist is a profoundly theological writer exploring both existential and eternal themes in four-minute packets of profundity and sacrilegious hymnody. Sometimes, that pairs as an almost-parody with the churchy obsession of the afterlife, such as with earlier earworms “Going to Heaven” and “Going to Hell.” Occasionally, it deals in the more tragic and gothic aspects of southern religion, as with “Baptized in Well Spirits” or “Heritage of Arrogance.” 

In the dedication section of the Anniversary liner notes, Adeem writes: “I want to thank the Unseen Magic that in my youth I named ‘God’ for sustaining me and filling my heart with gratitude and sorrow in equal measure so that I remain steadfast in my commitment to pleasure & justice.”  

On this new set, “Nightmare” tickles my theological itch with a prickly take-down of contemporary Christianity, with its internal predilection for abusive pastors and external obsession with right-wing politics. But after listening to the holy hooks and rapturous refrains of “Nightmare” multiple times, it leaves the listener with the discomforting task of reading it multiple ways. 

Is the speaker or singer inside the faith and suddenly waking up to the hypocrisy? Or is this song also about the inclusive churches getting picketed (or worse) for being inclusive? In this stunning song, the perspectives seem to change with each stanza, but the yearning defiance remains. Left theologians and political commentators more astute and faithful than me have reminded us that “What Would Jesus Do” has long left the building for an altar call to political warfare. This song abides in the uncomfortable inversion of our summer camp sentimental memories with the fiery insistence: “Don’t do us like Jesus.” That is, don’t crucify folks! In the victim-complex olympics of the most persecuted then persecuting the also-persecuted, this prayer for actual religious freedom and true tolerance is almost too much to bear. But being such a great song, we will sit with its seeming contradictions and learn to sing along.

As we in the “cast iron fansexual” universe (yes, that is what one of our online fan groups is actually called, a nod to their 2021 burner of an album Cast Iron Pansexual) already know, Adeem acknowledges a deep debt as a songwriter to the canon of John Prine. When touring behind Revelry and opening shows for the likes of Jason Isbell and the Mountain Goats, they often included a cover of “Lake Marie.” So it was of little surprise to me at all, that one Adeem’s most anthemic and addictive of the new tracks is “Plot of Land,” which really feels l ike a 21st century update of “Spanish Pipe Dream,” with shades of “Paradise” too. While staggering real estate prices make this back-to-the-earth dream unfortunately as unlikely in reality as “Run This Town” was for politics on the last album, Adeem’s unwavering and often utopian topic choices continue to embed their work in a hopeful (despite ourselves) south and often the rural south, even when certain forces would seek to chase us all away.

Thus the haunted closing track--“White Mule, Black Man”--mixes song and spoken word, connecting the Knoxville legend of the “white mule curse” of the late 19th century, with the murder of Maurice Mays and the Knoxville race riots of 1919. This song is not unlike “The Money Grows On Trees” (about the rural weed wars of the 1990s) which closes out the recent Willi Carlisle set, and I would love to see more of these deep takes on our complicated history find their way into the contemporary folk and country canon. These are not anthems, but they are not “skip tracks” either. They are semi-spoken stories that will stick with you for a considerable amount of time. 

Fans of raw, unfiltered and sometimes snarky and self-deprecating Adeem, don’t let the superb production of Anniversary throw you off. This isn’t really a “pop country” album by any means, if simply for its gnarled and authentic narratives. I don’t think Adeem could “sell out” if they tried, for they are too real, for their topics like themselves are too thorny and delicate and diverse. But with the sweetness of the sounds on this polished set, all deeply anchored by Adeem’s solid lyrics and longing croons, that means that if we know what’s good, we will pull up a chair and a beverage and the good headphones or speakers and linger with this one for a while, a long and lovely while. - Andrew/Sunfrog 

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