Country has a distinct sensibility, one capable of evoking specific landscapes and brands of sorrow, joy and attraction. In After All, Rob Baird directs this sensibility toward the emotional journey of a breakup. He follows the classic trajectory of other breakup albums of this ilk, tracing the stages from denial to despair to anger and betrayal to eventual resolve and acceptance. It’s a familiar path, so it’s saying something for Baird that After All still sounds completely fresh, original and genuinely heartfelt.
A notable component of the album’s effectiveness is Baird’s skill as a lyricist, which is evident from the very beginning of the album. On the opening title track, Baird sings about the feeling that a relationship isn’t going to work out. He illustrates a sense of directionlessness and waning hope with lines about “All these long nights, all these street lights / [Bleeding] into the fog.” This sure-handed poeticism keeps up throughout the album, from contemplative songs like “I Tried” (“Everywhere I go it’s pouring rain / Shouldn’t have to hold on to try to stay sane”) to despairing tracks like “Burning Blue” (“Like the desert rain / Sunday silence / And the choices I’ve made”) and the eventual resolution of “Best That I Was” (“Silver lake skies / Make no reason why”).
After All brims with unbridled emotion, from the guitar-riddled, electric street-lamp alertness of “Losing Hands” and “Ain’t Going Back to You” to the hurt mingled with resignation in “Devil Woman Blues.” Each song feels like its own pocket of a story, totaling a whole that looks like a dream-fueled road trip around America. The effect of the songs is that of driving past familiar scenery and feeling like something about your relationship with it is shifting before your eyes. This changing vision is the crux of After All, exemplified in songs like “Give Me Back My Love,” which lands somewhere between a plea from the former lover and a desperate longing for a sense of love in general. When Baird sings, “Gonna pick me up some silver lining / Gonna turn these nickels into dimes,” and later, “Give me back my love,” one can’t help but relate to the notion of love itself as one’s own happiness and contentedness, whatever this might demand from another person.
A large part of what makes After All a skillful album is the way in which Baird uses raw emotion as a starting point, rather than imagery or classic lyrical traditions. Country music — which, when measured by its masters, is truly a vast collection of variety, creativity and heart — is so often superficially pigeonholed as a genre defined by dusty roads, dimly lit bars and pickup trucks. Specific images and phrases, in other words, that are all too easy to toss into a song under the thinly veiled guise of thoughtful songwriting.
But there is very little of this affectation in After All, as Baird sets himself apart from some of these pitfalls using a masterful command of poetic devices as he himself defines them. He still orients his stories — because, again, that is what each of the songs on After All is, a unified, emotional little story within itself — around traveling open roads and wandering empty streets. One gets the sense that this journey for which he has invited us along is only one of many he’ll take, each of which has its own kind of wisdom to impart. Amid these familiar landscapes, Baird writes from his experiences first, unconcerned with figures outside of the unique relationship he is personally navigating, wandering those empty streets as only he can.