Waltzing into disaster and its aftermath, The Milk Carton Kids’ “All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do” arrives from ANTI- Records on June 29.
The new project marks the first time that acoustic duo Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale have brought a band into the studio with them. “We wanted to do something new,” Pattengale says. “We had been going around the country yet another time to do the duo show, going to the places we’d been before. There arose some sort of need for change.”
“Musically we knew we were going to make the record with a bigger sonic palette,” says Ryan. “It was liberating to know we wouldn’t have to be able to carry every song with just our two guitars.”
Since their last studio album, “Monterey” (ANTI- 2015), life has changed dramatically for The Milk Carton Kids. Pattengale has moved to, and is now producing records in Nashville. Ryan is now the father of two children and works as a producer on “Live from Here with Chris Thile,” the reboot of “A Prairie Home Companion.” A break from years of non-stop touring, Ryan says, has yielded “space outside of the band that gives us perspective on what the band is.”
But it’s not just the addition of the band here that creates something new. National politics left Ryan feeling disoriented and mournful. Pattengale’s relationship of seven years ended, and he found himself unexpectedly needing surgery for cancer. (He is cancer-free now, and accidentally broke his cigarette habit in the process.)
Though they didn’t approach the new album conceptually, a theme of shattered realities began to emerge out of the songs that sparked to life. Recent events provided a bruising background for the record, yet the project is somehow bigger than any personal grief. Two-part harmonies ride acoustic guitars high above the haunting landscape created by the presence of the band, as if Americana went searching for a lost America.
Produced by Joe Henry and engineered by Ryan Freeland, “All the Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn’t Do” was recorded in October 2017 in the Sun Room at House of Blues Studio in Nashville. Musicians who joined them there included Brittany Haas on violin and mandolin, Paul Kowert and Dennis Crouch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, Levon Henry on clarinet and saxophone, Nat Smith on cello, Pat Sansone on piano, mellotron, and Hammond organ, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and other guitars and Lindsay Lou and Logan Ledger as additional singers. Mixed by Pattengale, the album was mastered by Kim Rosen.
If previous Milk Carton Kids productions recall plaintive missives from a faraway hometown, these songs sound more intimate, like a tragic midnight knock at your front door.
The album ricochets between familiar styles and experimental songs. “Just Look at Us Now” rejects easy sentiment, suggesting that hindsight only reveals how badly things have turned out. “It’s a terrifying place to be,” says Ryan, “when everything seemed to be going fine.” The stunned “Mourning in America” holds up an atmospheric Polaroid from the Midwest—as Ryan explains it, “what it feels like to live in a country you thought you knew.”
In one of their biggest departures, “Nothing Is Real,” neither of The Milk Carton Kids plays guitar. Describing the recording session for it, Pattengale says, “That was one of the days we had maybe ten people in studio. The way that I connected to the song was by playing it on the piano. When we were in studio and having trouble figuring out the angle, I thought, ‘Why don’t we use the piano, and assign each person a part of what I’m playing?’ That song used my piano part almost as if we were writing an arrangement.”
Inside the theme of shattered realities that wires the album together, even elliptical songs somehow become direct. The lyrics for “Blindness,” when set to music, acquired an unnerving undertone. A subdued rhythm section and extended guitar solo turns “One More for the Road” from a wistful late-night last call into an astounding ten-and-a half-minute elegy.
Western influences on “Younger Years” gallop over a snaking clarinet and under vocals looking for something to salvage from sorrow (“Love inside our hearts / is the only kind of savior we’ve been sent”). “You Break My Heart” features Pattengale’s solo vocals. Harmony turns “I’ve Been Loving You” into visceral grief. “For much of my life I’ve avoided that kind of intimacy and immediacy in my own writing,” says Pattengale, “but you have to leave your blood on the page. It’s wonderful, but it can also be a terrifying thing.”
“Big Time” brings the energy of their live performances into the studio. “The goal was actually to record this one with a string band,” Ryan says. “So everybody was in the room together. Lyrically, this one deals in the most hopeful way with some of the themes of the record.”
The atmosphere on much of the album is both lush and spare, like waking up at night to find yourself on an ice floe that has drifted far from shore. “A Sea of Roses” traces its narrator’s burial wishes, while “Unwinnable War” went through a metamorphosis as it developed. “If these are the sides we’re staking out, no one side or the other can win,” says Ryan. “We lose sight of the damage the battle does.”
The title track, “All the Things…” presents a ledger of the countless tiny moments in a relationship from the vantage point of its passage into memory. (“The story of how the end came to be. How you became you. How I became me.”)
Listening to the Milk Carton Kids talk about their creative process, it’s easy to imagine them running in opposite directions even while yoked together. “Joey and I famously have an adversarial relationship, and that did not abate when it came to choosing songs,” Pattengale says.
They dig at each other in interviews and on stage, where Ryan plays his own straight man, while Pattengale tunes his guitar. The songs emerge somewhere in the silences and the struggle between their sensibilities.
They have been known to argue over song choices. They have been known to argue about everything from wardrobe to geography to grammar. But their singing is the place where they make room for each other and the shared identity that rises out of their combined voices.
Pattengale recalls hearing a story from Del Byrant, the son of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote so many of the Everly Brothers’ biggest hits. The tale goes that when it came time to teach them a new song, the couple would separate the brothers, with each one going into a different room to learn his part. In the process, they would tell each brother that he was singing the melody, while his brother was singing harmony.
Defying the conventions of melody and harmony is a strategy the Milk Carton Kids have consciously embraced. “Sometimes, we’ll switch parts for a beat or a bar or a note,” Ryan says. “And that starts to obfuscate what is the melody and what is the supporting part. Because we think of both of them being strong enough to stand alone.”
“There are only so many things you can do alone in life that allow you to transcend your sense of self for even a short period,” Pattengale says. “I’m the lucky recipient of a life in which for hundreds of times, day after day, I get to spend an hour that is like speaking a language only two people know and doing it in a space with others who want to hear it.
By extending that language to a band and reimagining the boundaries around what acoustic-centered two-part harmony can sound like, “All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn’t Do” carries listeners down a river and out into the open sea.