Album Review: Thomas Dollbaum – Wellswood

[Big Legal Mess; 2022]

With his debut, Wellswood, singer-songwriter and poet Thomas Dollbaum revels in wistful melodies and thorny atmospherics, his compelling lyricism drawing as much from the dark caricatures of Harry Crews and Denis Johnson as Springsteen’s realism, The Killers’ gritty portraiture, and the alt-Americana of Neutral Milk Hotel.

On the seductive opener, “Florida”, Dollbaum voices the hardships of outsiderism, including references to prostitution (“She’s riding high with some trick on Sligh Street”), codependence (“All your friends think it’s funny that we ain’t got any money / laying in this Dutch motel all day”), and drug use (“The methadone clinic won’t get you sober / but it will get you clean”). His plaintive timbre is accompanied by an alternately strummed and picked acoustic guitar and background dashes of mid-toned feedback. Lyrically, he accesses the Keatsian dilemma on which Springsteen essentially built a career: restlessness contained by fear and conditioning, the urge for transcendence stymied by doubt and oppressive circumstances (inherited and self-created).

“God’s Country” shows Dollbaum navigating a more pop-informed and rhythmic soundscape, his drawly voice accented and occasionally battered by drums, bass, and electric guitars. Obliquely relating the struggles of a couple who repeatedly break up and reunite, he offers provocative declarations (“That fine day when I was still hooked on depression”) along with images informed by a southern-goth aesthetic that would appeal to Ray Wylie Hubbard as much as Ethel Cain (“A cottonmouth grew out your hair and bit me on the lip”). The song’s melody is lilting yet drone-y, Dollbaum navigating a balance between angsty remembrance and equanimous reportage.

“All Is Well” integrates gossamer instrumentation, vocal layering, and a memorable guitar line that wends between verses, the dreamy mix bringing to mind Harry Nilsson and his contemporary torchbearer Father John Misty. On “Work Hard”, Dollbaum expresses his sincere love to a partner (“All the birds in the sky you know they don’t mean much to me / unless they mean a lot to you”) while, on the other hand, resorting to lame excuses when explaining his infidelity (“It’s not that I don’t want you / I’m just a man who can’t stay true”). In this way, he conjures the broader clash between instinct and rationality, the desire for a meaningful life upended by the urge for unadulterated freedom, an impulse that ironically becomes its own prison, often leading to destructive behavior and crippling loneliness.

The seven-minute epic “Moon” blends a sumptuous melody and poetic vernacular (“I had a long time lover in Dallas and you couldn’t stand her with me / I heard you’re getting married congratulations”), ending with the restatement of a vision introduced earlier in the song: “The moon was some low country dog born to die.” With final track “Break Your Bones”, Dollbaum pays tribute to a cast of fringe characters and their self-defeating habits (“Juliet’s cracked up on Nebraska Avenue / and your daddy’s out here huffing paint / … all I do here is get high and wait”). Closing with a reference to the “Big Book”, the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, the song and sequence conclude on a promising yet palpably uncertain note.

Wellswood taps into a fundamental artistic and human drive, most readily associated with Romanticism and its legacy: a yearning to reconcile the mundanities of daily existence with direct experience of infinity or unboundedness. Dollbaum’s lyrics, atmospheres, and melodies are born of and document this tension, how that mystical hunger can be a source of sublime inspiration as well as, in its unfortunate shadow form, addiction, mental illness, the innumerable descents.