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Now twenty-five years into his storied career, Cleaves' songwriting has never been more potent than on his new album Ghost on the Car Radio, out June 23.
The characters in Slaid Cleaves' songs live in unglamorous reality. They work dead-end jobs, they run out of money, they grow old, they hold on to each other (or not), and they die. With an eye for the beauty in everyday life, he tells their stories, bringing a bit of empathy to their uncaring world.
On "Take Home Pay," co-written with longtime friend Rod Picott, Cleaves sings from the perspective of an aging manual laborer, fighting looming regret and sadness with stubborn resiliency (and opioid use).
"As befits the times we live in, there's a heavy dose of disappointment and disillusion here," he says. But somehow, through the worst of it, optimism remains, as if to say, "Yeah, things are pretty bad out there. But there's still some good stuff if you know where to look."
One place his characters find solace is with each other. Traditional love songs are not often found on a Slaid Cleaves record. Here he approaches the subject less as a romantic gesture, and more as a world-weary appreciation of the one who's seen you through thick and thin, as in the song "So Good to Me."
Described as "terse, clear and heartfelt" (NPR Fresh Air), his songs speak to timeless truths. "I'm not an innovator. I'm more of a keeper of the flame," he says.