Dylan LeBlanc has packed more into his 22 years than any man could reasonably expect. The son of a noted session musician, he spent much of his youth soaking up the atmosphere in the recording studios of the legendary Muscle Shoals, Alabama and was already plucking a guitar by the age of just seven. By the end of his teens, he was a veteran of the Deep South touring circuit, had his heart broken by his childhood sweetheart and then subsequently beaten alcohol and drug addiction. Justin Bieber he certainly ain’t.
This traumatic early life dominates LeBlanc’s technically accomplished, relentlessly bleak music. His debut album Pauper’s Field channelled all his turbulent emotions through an austere sonic landscape of twanging pedal steel, finger picked guitar and sparse piano, providing a suitably portentous canvas for LeBlanc to paint his pained pictures of woe in his languorous, melancholy croon. Despite some encouraging reviews and no less a figure than Emmylou Harris endorsing his credentials by providing backing vocals, Pauper’s Field failed to take off and talk of a new Neil Young seemed fanciful.
Two years on, LeBlanc is back with Cast The Same Old Shadow and within seconds, the weeping strings and desperate sighs of opening track Part One: The End dispels any hopes that LeBlanc might have cheered up in the interim. The familiar musical elements of Pauper’s Field remain in place, but while many of the earlier album’s songs were relatively unadorned acoustic strums, we now get a fuller, more dramatic sound hanging over LeBlanc’s compositions, an all-pervading cloud of darkness that threatens to engulf its creator.
Cast The Same Old Shadow’s biggest problem is that its songs just aren’t strong enough to scale the grand emotional heights LeBlanc strives to achieve. Every American drifter cliché in the book is included and by the end we feel we’ve heard about enough lost loves and lost weekends to last a lifetime, but without really engaging with any of them. LeBlanc distils the essence of a huge range of influences, from the aforementioned Young, Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt to more recent performers like Chris Isaak and Will Oldham, as well as a literary canon encompassing predictable names like Charles Bukowski, but sounding a little bit like all of them cannot disguise his own lack of a unique selling point.
There are moments where talent does shine through. LeBlanc’s voice sounds beautifully desolate on the opening lines of Where Are You Now and Brother’s shambling groove and rockier guitar provide a welcome shift in tempo to the prevailing slow-paced miserabilism, but the highlights are few and far between. Too many songs on Cast The Same Old Shadow just merge imperceptibly into one shapeless gloom-fest, and even after half a dozen listens, there isn’t a single melody or lyric that manages to lodge itself into the brain. The album essentially involves wallowing in 45 minutes of one man’s competently performed but largely uninteresting catharsis, and there are unlikely to be too many takers either now or in the future unless LeBlanc lowers his lofty ambitions and frankly, chills out a bit.