“I got a song that’s happy and sad! Part of it’s good, part of it’s bad!” That’s Christopher Denny singing the opening fanfare on his second album, If the Roses Don’t Kill Us. If he sounds excited, he has good reason: During the seven-year interval between his debut and this follow-up, the Little Rock native sank into a deep well of alcohol and drug abuse, which stalled his career and nearly did worse to his life. That’s the sad part. The happy part is that he’s still around. Denny cleaned himself up, dusted himself off, signed to Partisan Records and got back into the studio.
If the Roses Don’t Kill Us is, almost inevitably, a roots-rock recovery album — one of several to plumb that territory in recent years. Just as some genres reward the use of hallucinogens, Americana tends to prize sobriety. John Murry’s The Graceless Age is a harrowing account of his struggle with heroin addiction, a musically twisted trip to the gutter and (fortunately) out again. On last year’s Southeastern, Jason Isbell tried to live down his alcoholic past and wondered if he knew or could trust the man he saw in the mirror.
By contrast, Denny’s songs are less about the past and more about the future, as he rights himself and imagines the happy moments that await him. Rarely does a recovery album sound so hopeful or quite so celebratory. It’s a tone that suits his unique voice, a barrelhouse falsetto that combines the dignity of Roy Orbison with the high-flying range of Slim Whitman. Despite the years of abuse and wear, it still sounds robust and expressive, especially on the tall tale “God’s Height” and the aggressively hopeful “Watch Me Shine.”
None of which is to say that Denny is ignoring his troubles. He’s just trying to leave them in the past. “I picked up my guitar, I almost got a thrill,” he sings on the rollicking closer “Some Things.” “I could if I was high, I ain’t doin’ that again.” It sounds like the kind of line you might writing knowing you’d be singing it every night, the kind you write to hold yourself accountable. Even on the more conflicted tunes like “Our Kind of Love,” a rambunctious ode to love’s destructive potential (“we beat ourselves black and blue”), Denny sounds like he’s writing songs as foundation for a clean life.
Occasionally he slips, as on the muddled “Love is a Code Word,” but it helps that he has a sharp backing band to instill these songs with barroom rowdiness. On his 2007 debut, Denny defined what he calls “Arkansas soul,” a mix of rock energy, folk nuance, gospel fervor, and R&B rhythms. “Million Little Thoughts” opens with a sanctified organ solo that could have been recorded at Al Green’s church in Memphis, and the title track struts along to a Dixieland jazz band. Every song seems to feature some unexpected musical flourish, but the album never sounds disjointed. Rather, it sounds like a man who has just rediscovered the joys of making music.