“I might not make it home, but I’ll make it through the night,” sings Chris Milam on the penultimate track of his new album, Meanwhile (out April 24). It’s a fitting—if ominous—coda for an album that explores the ways we survive periods of transition.
For the Memphis singer-songwriter, and for most of us, the last few years have been a time of seismic transition. Supporting the 2017 release of his critically-acclaimed breakout Kids These Days (“Invites—and earns—the Paul Simon comparisons,” raved American Songwriter), Milam toured across North America and the UK, played festivals and theaters, and collaborated with heroes (e.g. Stax legend William Bell). Musically, things had never been better.
But personally, Milam marked these years by his dad’s losing battle with multiple myeloma (i.e. blood cancer). Diagnosis, remission, relapse, prognosis, hospice, and finally rest. As such, Meanwhile takes death head-on: the personal-as-political anguish of “In the Blood”; the suicidal ideation of “Lonely Living Right”; the playground elegy of “Dogwood Spring.”
More broadly, Meanwhile is an album about loss. Loss of a father, yes, but also a long-term relationship. The album’s first three tracks form an out-of-order love trilogy that establish the album’s themes while breaking the expectation of a simple, linear experience. As he signals: “I can’t steer my story straight.”
Following a serious hand injury, loss even extended to music. “I had nerve damage in my left hand that took nine months to heal,” Milam explains. “In 2017, I played 150 shows. In 2018, I played 2.” What does a musician do when they can’t play music?
“It’s tough, but it’s tough for everyone,” insists Milam, quick to deflect. “There’s a weight in the air. When the world is full of existential dread, palpable dread, how do you just get through the day?”
Meanwhile offers ten perspectives on that question with a sonic warmth and lyrical intimacy befitting an album from 2020 or 1970. From a darkly gorgeous portrait of substance abuse (“Whiskey In The Morning”), to a crack-up-after-break-up (“Crazy From The Outside In”) to cheeky self-satire (“Girl In Every Town”), this album crucially focuses on the exterior by way of the interior. The result is a warm, deeply intimate, open-hearted portrait of a broken psyche.
To achieve it, Milam again enlisted producer Toby Vest & engineer Pete Matthews (High/Low Recording in Memphis), the same duo Milam found a creative kinship with on Kids These Days. A small but stellar crew filled out the arrangements: keys legend Rick Steff (Lucero), guitar hero Steve Selvidge (The Hold Steady), trumpet ace Marc Franklin (Gregg Allman), and Milam’s longtime touring partner, cellist Elen Wroten. More contributions came from High/Low’s literal-and-figurative family of musicians. Milam describes the process as true collaboration:
“I wanted to work quickly. I wanted it to feel like a snapshot, a moment in time. I gave everybody one direction: pretty, unexpected, broken. When we got all the performances, musical threads revealed themselves. Different instruments represented different memories, feelings, even voices in my head. The lyrics have always echoed each other; now the arrangements did, too. Toby and Pete did an amazing job sifting through those sounds and helping me tell the story sonically. Honestly, many folks who were involved had recently lost parents. It shows. I simply couldn’t have made this album with anyone else.”
Depending on the day (or listening order), you can walk away from Meanwhile heavy, empty, haunted or hopeful. Maybe all of the above. That’s ultimately the spirit of the album, and the what’s found in our own personal “meanwhiles”: a life connecting dots.