With his 2016 inaugural outing, Dolls of Highland, Kyle Craft won over the music world, boasting howling vocals and Dylanesque stream of consciousness lyrics that create a kaleidoscope of frantic imagery. Although his sophomore effort, Full Circle Nightmare, keeps in step with established themes of lost love and vagabonds escaping a troubled past, it doesn’t try to recreate what came before. Instead the record branches out and explores new sounds, leaning on squealing church organs and lively horn sections to subvert the expectations of the aesthetic we’ve come to associate with a Sub Pop release.
While he’s going back to the same well that birthed his debut, Full Circle Nightmare is much more sonically diverse than its predecessor. The record swings between folk rock nods to The Band (“Exile Rag”) and celebrations of 70s glam rock (“Belmont (One Trick Pony)”), between pained, heartfelt ballads (“Slick & Delta Queen”) and rowdy, drunken sing-alongs (“Bridge City Rose”). Judging from the theatrical, down-on-his-knees plea “Heartbreak Junky,” it would appear that Craft even credits Meat Loaf as a principal influence. He is able to forge tunes out of a rambunctious frenzy, but they are always anchored by his tender – and often shattered – heart.
Craft continues to blossom as a gifted lyricist, with his voodoo-infused vignettes of restless misfits and fallen angels. Much like Bruce Springsteen before him, his true talent as a songwriter lies in his ability to paint a complete portrait of his dejected characters by simply drawing from a few stray details, as when he finds himself “stranded down on Silver Street, just throwing bottles at the Delta Queen” (“Slick & Delta Queen”).
That’s not to say that there isn’t humor to be found in Craft’s verses. He’ll often use a verbal aside as an opportunity to toss in a dirty joke or two, as seen on “Fake Magic Angel” (“You suck life out of what’s around you, but you won’t be suckin’ nothin’ outta me”) and “Gold Calf Moan” (“Aside from lovin’ all through the night, I’m not so different than you”).
Showcasing the deeply human tales he picked up on the road from Shreveport to Portland, the universe of Craft’s creation feels genuine and lived-in. There isn’t any time wasted on sugar coating or happy endings in his rearview mirror retrospectives. This world is murky, and often unforgiving. Somewhere inside this unabashed folk rock fanatic is a beat poet, scouring the streets for lost souls and enmeshing their stories within these tracks. Whether it’s the drop-dead heartbreaker in “The Rager” or the “new-age Jezebel” in “Fever Dream Girl,” Craft’s booze-soaked tales of bayou seduction call to mind Jack Kerouac, resonating with anyone who has found out that vulnerability and torment go hand in hand.
Taking advantage of both a full band and a seasoned producer (Chris Funk of The Decemberists) who knows how to best utilize this wailing troubadour, Kyle Craft uses Full Circle Nightmare to solidify the no-holds-barred attitude hammered out on his debut, while tapping into the deeper emotional implications hidden underneath. While pouring his heart out, he conjures up a sound from an era past that somehow manages to feel as timely as it is timeless.