Despite the title of This Mess We're In, Cincinnati-based country crooner Arlo McKinley insists his new collection of songs comes from a place of personal growth. It's a feeling he has experienced plenty of after the pandemic sidelined him from touring in 2020 just months prior to releasing his Oh Boy Records debut Die Midwestern in August 2020.
Now, nearly two years later, McKinley is back on the road--having just returned from a tour with label mates Kelsey Waldon and Emily Scott Robinson in Europe--and ready to release his highly anticipated follow-up on July 15. Recorded at Memphis' renowned Sam Phillips Recording Service with producer Matt Ross-Sprang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, St. Paul & The Broken Bones), McKinley says This Mess We're In is the record he's always wanted to make.
"From the day I walked in the studio to record [This Mess We're In] the goal was to make a completely different record," McKinley tells Wide Open Country. "This is the record I wanted to make all along. I love Die Midwestern too, but this new album is the most 'me' thing that I could have put out."
On the project McKinley channels the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and others who've previously recorded at the famed studio as he expands his boundaries more than ever before as country, folk, chamber, rock'n roll, blues and gospel music collide. At the same time, he also doubles down on the sobering, pull at your heartstrings style of songwriting that made Die Midwestern so revered.
This go around McKinley's sorrow-fueled sound--which has inspired a flurry of "Arlo Made Me Cry" shirts--is sourced primarily from the pandemic. This includes everything from the loss of his mother and close friend ("Here's To The Dying") to heartbreak ("Stealing Dark From The Night Sky"), addiction ("Back Home), the musician's struggle ("To Die For") and finding hope in the darkest of times ("This Mess We're In").
Although it's filled with so many stories of sadness, each song on This Mess We're In radiates with a message of hope and perseverance. This is exemplified in the album's title track, a story of navigating love in unprecedented times and being prepared for anything life throws your way, which McKinley opens by singing:
"These are the days that I'll remember
This boy's never held a smile so wide
It's proof that the bad days do get better
It's proof that love is still alive
I will follow where this goes
And in this mess we'll rest and find ourself a home"
Even on the album's closing track, "Here's To The Dying," McKinley finds peace in the death of loved one's, particularly his mother. In place of sadness, McKinley instead recalls profound moments like her teaching him and his siblings how to love while at the same time mourning and paying tribute to the person who made him the person he is today.
"This new record is more a story of growth at a time when it has been reality difficult to do so these past few years," says McKinley. "During the pandemic I used writing as a way of navigating the bad situations I found myself in rather than getting stuck in them. With Die Midwestern a lot of the songs were about someone who was lost and searching for his calling whereas with This Mess We're In it's more about a guy who's found that purpose but is just figuring out how to accomplish it."
For McKinley, being honest about his darkest moments is essential to not only his own music, but also his personal well-being. When his mother died, he coped with the loss by writing "Here's To The Dying." When he's been hindered by the grip opioids once had on him, he's written songs like "Bag Of Pills" and, more recently, "Back Home." And when he deals with heartbreak, he handles it with writing as well ("Stealing Dark From The Night Sky," "Dancing Days"). The way McKinley sees it, there's no other way for him to approach his music than to be fully open and honest with his audience.
"I'd be doing my listeners, and myself, a disservice if I wrote about things I didn't know or experience for myself," says McKinley. "Life is really heavy at times. I've gotten myself into plenty of bad situations that in hindsight I wish I hadn't, but I'm not afraid of or ashamed to step back and look to see what I can do better. More often than not my way of doing that has been to write and sing about it. It's the only way I've ever known how to make music, and I believe a big reason why so many people seem to connect with my songs."
Happy with his home in Nashville at Oh Boy Records, McKinley also takes time on the album to touch on his long journey to the label on "To Die For." The angsty, organ-fueled rock-n roll anthem sees McKinley singing about "a fight we knew that we wouldn't win" against musical institutions that determine what sells and doesn't in Nashville, "a city where dreams come to die." McKinley goes on to sing about how many artists worry more about appeasing the powers at be rather than following their heart and staying true to what made them successful in the first place, singing:
"And it breaks my heart to think about
We will never be the same again
Here I've been still trying to figure me out
When I should have been worried about them"
"So much in Nashville is about the next big break, the next big show or the next big co-write... it just consumes people so much," says McKinley. "When I'm hanging out with someone playing music or talking about my music is one of the last things I want to talk about. Too many people worry about being seen and end up losing some of their authenticity in the search for it. It's one of many reasons why I'm blessed to be with Oh Boy Records. They don't want to change anything about my music, they just let me be me."
Even though Nashville may be slow to adapt, McKinley is not. His authenticity and forthright songwriting will never go out of style, helping to instill hope and community in those who adore his music and have experienced similar struggles in their own lives. This Mess We're In drives home this message of resiliency and hope in its 11 songs to perfection and is sure to build steadily upon the rust belt native's fast-growing reputation as one of the best active storytellers in country music.
This Mess We're In will be available on July 15 via Oh Boy Records.
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