Album Review – The White Buffalo’s “Year of the Dark Horse”

Venture to the most outer realms of what anyone would ever consider as “country music,” and you will find the domain of The White Buffalo. As rare and peculiar as an albino bison standing out there on the wild plain, this is music that doesn’t fit in anywhere. But unlike the music that calls itself country for commercial exploitation, The White Buffalo has been welcomed into the country music fold from the respect he garners from his fellow musicians as a quality songwriter with an evolved ear for composition and soundscapes.

Born in Oregon and residing in Los Angeles, The White Buffalo built his career off of syncing tracks on hit shows like Sons of Anarchy as opposed to having to suck up to some radio format, or fit into a scene in Texas or Nashville. This autonomy is what has allowed him to explore more imaginative modes of music making that take on a cinematic aspect. Listening to The White Buffalo is more like going on a journey as opposed to filling everyday moments with background noise or diversion.

This is the experience awaiting you on the new album Year of the Dark Horse. Full of self-reflective moments that inspire introspection and personal evaluation, it’s a mostly conceptualized album arguing that the winter is the opportune time for renewal by extricating oneself from the grip of mundane moments and restrictive vices. Meanwhile, the music rises to meet the challenge that the inspired writing presents, whatever genre or mix of genres you choose to label it.

Uninhibited in attitude and untethered by genre, The White Buffalo is able to go places other artists just can’t, though the music still mostly comes across as familiar, intuitive, and strangely seamless unto itself, even when he works from rock, to folk, to country, while touching on everything in between. He’ll do a song like the opening track “Not Today” that feels like a progressive form of rock, then a song like “She Don’t Know That I Lie” that is very Tom Waits in style and writing, which quickly transitions to “C’mon Come Up Come Out,” which could be considered folk or country.

Employing Jay Joyce as producer was a smart move for The White Buffalo and this album. Though Joyce’s reputation is for turning country artists more rock, his more diverse musical tool kit works for The White Buffalo’s broader vision of music. Still, this is probably the least folk or country album The White Buffalo has ever done, perhaps to the chagrin of some of his more roots-oriented fans. But the album also still remains very much in the spirit of The White Buffalo universe.

Year of the Dark Horse is about goading you out of a rut and towards a better life. The year is now, and the Dark Horse is you. No matter your circumstance, you can still find the plasticity to reshape your future. Sometimes what you need is encouragement or reassurance. That’s what the songs “Am I Still a Child” and “… Life Goes On” are for. Even some of the rapacious characters encountered on the album like in the song “Heart Attack” fall within the underlying theme, warning you about the bad friends or lovers to avoid, or the worst parts of your own nature to suppress.

No song on the album needs the others to be understood though. That’s why one resists calling Year of the Dark Horse an actual concept album. It’s a White Buffalo album, which goes both deeper and further afield than most other works. But you can pick off individual songs like the well-written “52 Card Pickup,” or the comparatively simple “Love Song #3” to listen to individually, and leave the deeper exploration to others.

Named Jake Smith in the real world, The White Buffalo has created quite the successful music career for himself, even if the media has mostly ignored it since he doesn’t fit any of their broader narratives, and nobody knows exactly where to put him. But he’s amassed a large following of fans through his advanced approach to music that confers more meaning per note, and more enrichment overall. Year of the Dark Horse most certainly adds to that legacy.

8.2/10

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