On their 2020 self-titled debut, Bonny Light Horseman – composed of Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman – put their own imprint on 10 classic, multi-century old folk songs. On their sophomore effort, the trio (whom many assumed were merely a one-off diversion) return with 10 original songs – this time recruiting only Mike Lewis (bass/sax) and JT Bates (drums) for assistance. Brighter and decidedly more country-charred than their first release, Rolling Golden Holy is an album of serene beauty whose best songs feel just as timeless as the certified classics the band covered two years ago.
Opener “Exile” sets the stage for Rolling Golden Holy’s following 32 minutes; “Love, love, love” are the fitting opening words for this album centred around the importance of loving each other and appreciating the simple joys of the world around us. Professions of undying love in the first verse are replaced with a creeping sense of urgency and outsized ambition in the chorus, with growing cries of “I don’t wanna live in exile”.
These seemingly contradictory states – of restlessness and satisfaction – pop up across Rolling Golden Holy, perhaps a reflection of the shared COVID reality the trio found themselves in shortly after the release of their debut; of finding value in the forced stillness of the moment while itching for life to keep moving forward. “California” is the album’s best on-the-road anthem; “With a broken heart / And a crow in the yard / My love and I are leaving… Looking for a reason”, sings Johnson – capturing the nervous excitement of starting life anew, even if it means having the safety net pulled out from beneath you.
Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman have a gift for blowing up small moments until they seem like they are of tantamount importance. On “Comrade Sweetheart”, Mitchell asks “Who’s gonna lace up your boots?”, “Who’s gonna loosen my braid?” as if the world’s future hinges on the answers given. The sublime “Summer Dream” centres on the sensory magic derived from new love – the sound of Tupelo Honey playing, the smell of a “rolled cigarette” and the dripping of wet hair “on the kitchen floor”.
But with Rolling Golden Holy, Bonny Light Horseman prove they are equally capable of confronting grand narrative arcs (not that Mitchell’s Hadestown didn’t already prove her strength in this area many times over). “Fair Annie” finds our narrator writing from the home front to his “true love”, acutely aware that every letter he sends may be his last. “Someone to Weep for Me” is also set during war time – this time, during the 19th Century, but its central message is enduring, as our downcast narrator ponders his place in the world. At the song’s heart is a devastating question, ‘what happens if I don’t live long enough to leave my mark?’
Recorded in Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond studio and the trio’s “spiritual home”, an old church called Dreamland, Rolling Golden Holy exudes a communal, back-to-basics charm. The threesome operate within an eternal country-folk formula of less-is-more that fosters a sense of instant familiarity. For all the charm this engenders Rolling Golden Holy with, it also means that there are few real musical surprises springing from the supergroup’s second effort. As a result, the LP necessarily fades into the background on occasion – but as soon as this happens, it’s never long until Mitchell’s arresting, wounded yet optimistic voice captures your attention or a particularly devastating line from Johnson – like “I was named after my father / In a long line of nobodies” – pulls you back in.
Herein lies the trio’s magic – though Johnson, Mitchell and Kaufman never demand the listener’s attention, it’s impossible not to be compelled by their gentle, impactful and layered tales of heartache, breakthrough and new beginnings.