On his first record since 2014, the genre-bending songwriter considers the end.
On his first record in two-and-a-half years, Cory Branan is thinking about death. The album's title literally means goodbye. There are songs that address it head on, and there are others where the references are a little more oblique—but the end of things seems on his mind.
"It sort of kept creeping back in, not in a literal sense about dying, a lot of them are just goodbyes in general," says Branan. "There's death to idealism, there's death to innocence, and death to former selves. It gets to where I want the record to move a certain way and be balanced, but it doesn't need to carry a theme, I don't really do concept records."
That he doesn't. Adios, due April 7 on Bloodshot Records, is Branan's most assured set of songs yet. The rave up "I Only Know" features Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace and punk stalwart Dave Hause on backing vocals, while "You Got Through" features keys straight out of an Elvis Costello song. It's songs like these that contrast to more traditional country fare—songs like "Blacksburg" and the tender "Don't Go," featuring accompaniment by singer/violinist Amanda Shires. But Branan was never much for sticking to a style in the first place.
"Some people say 'there aren't genres,' but I have the luxury of playing and opening for different people because I play solo, so people have to take the songs at face value whether they like them," he says. "Maybe the punks can hear my accent and they sort of balk at that, like 'what is this hillbilly doing?' There's no aesthetics to balk at immediately, so the song hits them at melody and rhythm and words."
There are plenty of those moments on Adios. Midway through the album comes the deceptively poppy "Another Nightmare in America," a song written from the perspective of a racist killer cop. It feels like the most topical song on the record, echoing the bloody summers of the past few years and hits very close to home considering the country's current political climate. Branan says that not one specific incident inspired the song. "Unfortunately I wish there was, but you know, it's just longstanding police brutality. It's not necessarily even escalating, it's just now it's being recorded," he says. "The record uses untrustworthy narrators here and there."
The state of the country even influences songs on the record that don't sound political at all. In fact, one song was written to the beat of his son's footsteps as an optimistic anthem for the current state of the world. "'I Only Know' was written at a time where I could sort of see that things were going this way with the country and scaring the shit out of me, and my kid was running around the house so I started writing a song to his rhythm, trying to write this happy, Buddy Holly-type thing," he says. "It's one of the more hopeful songs on the record."
Family plays an integral part in Branan's songwriting process, but not in the ways one would expect. "Well, the songwriting process is out the window once you have kids," says the father of two. "Having a family makes (songwriting) more of a bleak approach. The impulses are there," he says. "The anger at the world is sharper, it's more in focus. It's just a constant perspective. You can always get outside yourself because there's something bigger than you."
Ultimately, it's a record of Cory Branan doing what he does best: defying expectations and cultivating a collection of songs that appeal to many different audiences. "People have an impulse to want to describe things," he says. "[For example], I don't want to go to the grocery store and buy a pint of ice cream that has a question mark on it. I want to know what I'm getting into," he says. "For better or worse I just try to make music that's authentic to me." On Adios, he does that not only for himself, but for anyone who is listening.