Kevin Renick’s Clear the Way
A Review by Jackson Truax
Kevin Renick’s fifth album Clear the Way transcends the limitations we place on our typical understanding of an “album”. What Renick has created here feels most comparable to a conceptual show performed by Sufjan Stevens, or a classic album by the Moody Blues or Pink Floyd. Like many of the greatest achievements of the tragically bygone era of “album-oriented rock”, Renick’s soundscape offers a journey that he invites listeners to join him on, whether they follow his literal path or create something of their own. At its honest and vulnerable core, Clear the Way is the most intimate of personal statements expressed on the most epic scale.
The twelve-minute “Prologue: The #5 Dream Train Arrives at the Station LATE, and Damaged” deserves to go down among music aficionados as one of the great opening statements for a concept album. Renick confidently lets the listener know what sort of experience he’s creating, and hopefully his audience will open themselves up to the journey of the record. This nicely sets the stage for the ultimate effect of Clear the Way. To its upmost credit, this album truly feels like Renick dropped acid, put on headphones, closed his eyes, went on an ego-shattering journey through his subconscious and past traumas, and then wanted to communicate through seventy-eight minutes of music what he experienced.
“Promise Man”, the first song proper on the album, reassures that the ensuing journey will also include some luscious harmonies and a beat that you can dance to. It’s to the betterment of Clear the Way that Renick is willing to wear both his past work and his influences on his sleeve. The “Prologue” reinterprets Renick’s best-known composition, the title track from the Up In the Air soundtrack. Contrastingly, the vibe of the guitar solo on “Promise Man” tips a hat to Neil Young, and certain chord changes and harmonies on the following track “GirlFriends” feel more than passingly influenced by Graham Nash and his early band The Hollies.
Part of Renick’s fever dream vibe and musical prowess is his ability to blend an obvious influence with a polar opposite vibe, contrasting the Nash-influence on “GirlFriends” with some sonic synth sounds, to craft an experience that always feels fresh and unique.
“Rescue Them” is playfully folksy, a love letter to rescue animals that pays equal tribute to Renick’s Paul Simon and John Prine influences. The earnest sweetness with which Renick delivers these lyrics is genuinely heart-warming. And the Crazy Horse-inspired guitar solo really helps the track “pop”, as they say.
”Grateful (In Memory of F.W.H)” helps crystallize the aspect of the albums concept, in which every song feels like an original statement, expressed through the musical milieu of a particular artistic voice running through Renick’s subconscious. In this case, Renick’s paean to a fallen friend hits the same emotional nerve hit by many of the album tracks on Joni Mitchell’s Blue, with Renick’s composition including a compelling orchestra interlude.
“If We Can Keep Dancing” is truly heart-wrenching. While it stands out as one of the more upbeat pieces of music here, Renick’s delivery applies an innocence-fueled optimism that seems doomed to disappointment and failure.
“Fast and Off” serves as Renick’s attempt to write the perfect cruising-down-the-highway song. It succeeds, largely because Renick is creating music here less focused on lyrics or melodies and more occupied with existing in Renick’s broader stream-of-consciousness, sonic landscape. The musical buttons Renick pushes aren’t the most obvious, but they end up being the intelligent ones. While Clear the Way was recorded with five engineers over a lengthy period of sessions, every choice made fits nicely into the gestalt of Renick’s vision and storytelling.
“Different Without You” is another evocative vocal performance from Renick. The song is a lovely exercise in creating surf rock for the emo set. The track really connects, especially as another set of more painful lyrics juxtaposed against music so upbeat.
“These Things Happen” offers Renick’s grunge statement. While the fourteen songs here are all clearly best appreciated in the context of this song cycle, this one stands out as one of the tracks that invites repeated listening on its own terms. With Young ever-serving as one of Renick’s greatest heroes, it makes perfect karmic sense that Renick’s inner grief and angst is well-explored on a track that would feel right at home on either Young’s “Freedom” or “Ragged Glory” albums.
The instrumental “Mousie Goes Scampering” nicely sets up the last act of Renick’s journey. “Just Movin’ On”, Renick’s nod to California country-rock, serves as a great anthem of resilience.
In Renick’s quest for resolution, “Bites” offers a nearly-final attempt to try and address his remaining melancholia over fractured relationships and lost intimacy. “Bites 2: The Ever Lingering Mood” is another soundscape combining upbeat rhythms with some stirring keyboard tones and stunning sound effects alluding simultaneously to nature and technology.
“Clear the Way” serves as both the album’s final and title track. This is as good an example as any as to the kind of lyricism in which Renick is most comfortable trafficking. His first-person narrative – confessional, pained, brutally honest – is an accomplished example of using lyrics and storytelling as personal reportage. Renick’s lyrics, often like Mitchell’s – one of Renick’s earlier-cited heroes – tell you what they’re about, and narrate in a literal sense the stories that are being communicated. That doesn’t serve to any detriment to the songs or album as a whole. If anything, it’s a well-employed contrast to the vast and expansive canvas on which the experience of Renick’s album exists.
“Clear the Way” is an important work and a meaningful achievement of Renick’s. Whether it sells five copies or five million doesn’t change that. However, this incredible work of art could be the exact kind of album that creates or serves as a soundtrack to meaningful experiences in listeners’ lives. It’s worth your time, if only to give a cursory listen to see where Renick’s song cycle might take you.