Adversity and change have long provided the impetus for country music and since The Milk Carton Kids’ last album, Monterey, the duo have gone through a number of life changing events; Joey Ryan welcomed his second child into the world, whilst Kenneth Pattengale overcame cancer and went through the breakup of his seven-year relationship. As a group, The Milk Carton Kids have expanded from a duo to a full band for their latest album, All The Things I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do. A wealth of upheaval and experience to draw on should provide a firm basis for a classic album, and The Milk Carton Kids don’t disappoint.
Long term fans of the duo shouldn’t panic about Ryan and Pattengale’s decision to bring a band onboard, for their music is still just as delicate and intricate as it ever was. The expanded sound suits them perfectly, giving them wider scope and allowing the duo to realise their artistic vision.
The centrepiece of the album is the 10-minute epic One More For The Road. Sprawling and heartbreaking, it finds the pair utilising nuance wonderfully. A mournful shuffle with ghostly interjections from the pedal steel, it gets under your skin before heading into a lengthy and hypnotic jam section that The Doors would have been proud of. If the house band at the Last Chance Saloon were playing this at last orders, there’d be no doubt that once that final shot of whisky is finished, the end is waiting just the other side of the bar’s exit sign. Yet, as apocalyptic as the song sounds, Ryan and Pattengale’s beautifully entwined vocals offer comfort. They might suggest that the world is cold, but there’s warmth in those harmonies.
It’s not all end of the world dirge. Big Time makes full use of the fiddle and pulls the band into slightly more upbeat territory. “This’ll be the last time we’re gonna walk a straight line… this’ll be the last time we’re gonna have a big time” might be drawing a line, but at least there’s a good send off before any new beginnings. You Break My Heart is classic country in terms of subject matter but it also captures the spirit of Hank Williams and releases it gently. Mourning In America seems to pull on Randy Newman and Paul Simon for influences as it dissects the end of a relationship and pits that experience against hearing the news of a new tragedy. Naturally it’s one of the highlights on an album filled with slow burning gems.
Contemplating life and death are, understandably, themes that run throughout the album. A Sea Of Roses ruminates on dying, and although lines like “I’m scared that when I die, I’ll be alone with noone sitting by my side” are filled with fear, the wonderful vocal interplay between the duo elevates the song’s introspection into something like euphoric acceptance. “Lay me down in the ground, put me back into the earth amongst all of my friends, under a blanket of roses” might appear somewhat morbid when merely written down, but somehow they make it sound like something to look forward to.
The title track seems to hint at the aftermath and need to purge everything after a terrible diagnosis. It looks back over the course of a relationship; the good and the bad, the hurt and the good times. What makes it hit home so powerfully is the details in the lyrics and the subtlety of the accompaniment. There’s a palpable sense of love, loss and fear. It’d take a hard heart not to choke up a little when the cello swells and the line “for all of the times that I counted the lines in your hair as you slept by my side” is delivered with genuine emotion. It even ends with what sounds like an allusion to Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World, which adds a little knowing wink and a brief injection of dark humour, right at the close of an album packed with songs created by a duo trying to make sense of the world.
All The Things That I Did… takes a little time to truly unfurl, but over time it opens out into a wonderful, if occasionally heartbreaking gem. Thankfully, this is an album that The Milk Carton Kids can’t include on their list of things that they didn’t do.