John Moreland is sick of being called a sad bastard. He didn't used to mind it much. At first, he actually liked it, because when he began writing 2013’s In the Throes, the first album that would garner the 31-year-old singer-songwriter any attention outside of his native Oklahoma, being a sad bastard was pretty much the explicit goal. "When I was writing that record, I was like, 'I want to wreck people. I'm going to make all these motherfuckers cry,'" Moreland tells Rolling Stone Country, calling from his home in Tulsa.
So when it worked, when people heard the album, a devastating, painfully romantic collection of songs with gut-punch titles like "Break My Heart Sweetly" and "I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am," and promptly began to sob – at home, during his shows, while driving home from work – Moreland had no qualms whatsoever. "It's what I was trying to do," he says.
But by the time the singer-songwriter made his 2015 record High on Tulsa Heat, he was already beginning to grow weary and more than a little self-conscious about being the guy who makes you break down at his shows. That album included a tongue-in-cheek reference to his growing reputation in a song with the very not-sad title of "You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry."
"I'm so damn good at sorrow," he sang, letting everyone know that he was already keenly aware of how he was being typecast: as a miserabilist white-male singer-songwriter wallowing in his own problems, and one who was damn good at it.
"When I heard the sad bastard thing more and more, it came to a point where I felt like a caricature of a real person. It made me really depressed for a little while, where I kind of believed it and put too much stock in that. I felt like it was all I had to offer: just bumming people out. It got really dark," Moreland says. "I was a happy person, and then everybody called me a sad person, and then that made me sad. I felt like, 'Am I just bumming everybody out? Is my art just this one-dimensional, negative thing?'"
Two years later, John Moreland answers that question resolutely with his stunning new album Big Bad Luv, a record that's likely to serve both as his commercial breakthrough and as the rich, multi-faceted work that allows Moreland to shed his reputation as one-dimensional tearjerker. Inspired by the genre-switching spirit of roots classics like Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Tom Petty's Wildflowers, Big Bad Luv builds on Moreland's morose acoustic balladry with country shuffles, straightforward rockers, garage-blues barnburners and light R&B sing-alongs.
"I wanted to do something that represented more of what I'm into," he says.
OVER the past few years, John Moreland fell in love and got married. "It happened in the most unexpected, out of nowhere way, and I guess that's the cliché, that that's how it always happens," he says. "But it was true."
That process of finding and nurturing love has changed Moreland – it's made him wiser, more humble, more grown up. "All the things about being an adult that people maybe try to do earlier in their 20s are just happening naturally in my life now. It's weird, but I like it."
The big question that Big Bad Luv presents, then, is what happens when folk music's great chronicler of bleary-eyed heartbreak and unrequited devotion finds peace and romance? The answer, Moreland stresses, is not so neat and simple. The last thing he wants people to take away from this record, in fact, is some false narrative of, "I used to be sad and now I'm happy – even though that is part of it, and it's not untrue."
"John's taught me that being that honest about your own feelings can help other people heal." - Miranda Lambert
To reduce Moreland's album to an uncomplicated transformation about a sad man falling in love and getting happy simply misses the mark. There are indeed rare, thrilling glimpses of bliss and hard-won contentment, but the backbone of Big Bad Luv is, like its title suggests, a clear-eyed exploration of the promise of capital-L love from the perspective of someone who's finally found it after searching for and prophesying about it for so long. When you finally get the thing you've been so obsessed with for so long, does it hold up?
Is true love what John Moreland always thought it would be?
Those questions are at the heart of the best songs on Moreland's new album. Some of the titles are telling enough: "Love Is Not an Answer" and "Lies I Chose to Believe." On the latter, Moreland examines his past emotions with a magnifying glass before arriving at a beautiful revelation: "Love ain't a sickness," he sings, "though I once thought it was."
It’s that sort of honesty that's made Moreland a favorite among fellow musicians and songwriters over the past half-decade.
"I discovered John Moreland's music at a time in my life when I really felt all alone in heartbreak," says Miranda Lambert, a Moreland superfan who's come out to a handful of his shows. "When I heard his voice and his lyrics, I didn't feel so alone. John's taught me that being that honest about your own feelings can help other people heal. I'm thankful for his art and how it makes me feel everything: the good and the bad." Lambert recently tweeted further praise for the songwriter, writing in part, "How does John Moreland know everything? A song for every emotion."
Such immediate emotional connection is also what attracted Moreland's new label, the venerable indie powerhouse 4AD, which has never before signed an artist anywhere as rootsy as Moreland. "It just has to be believable, and John has this lovely delivery that's just very believable," says labelhead Simon Halliday. "John's not in a rush, and he's not desperate for fame. It's always nice if you can get through to the next level without changing yourself at all."
MORELAND first began recording Big Bad Luv in October of 2015, just a few short months after he released High on Tulsa Heat. He knew from the outset that he wanted his new record to be more rock-based, and he recorded a full nine-song album, half of which he would eventually scrap when he realized the record was lacking any sort of narrative arc. "I needed to live a little more to finish the story," he says.
A few months later in January 2016, while on tour in Europe opening for Jason Isbell, Moreland had a breakthrough when he wrote "It Don't Suit Me (Like Before)." The song unlocked a crucial perspective for Moreland, a way in which he could investigate his own past emotions by looking at them from afar. "I used to have a prisoner's point of view," he sings. "Now I only care for being seen by you." Moreland recorded it, then took a few months off.
In the summer of 2016, he booked one final session that his friend Rick Steff, the piano player for the Memphis grunge-roots group Lucero, had agreed to play on. In a burst of inspiration, Moreland wrote the album's five final songs with Steff's piano playing in mind. As per usual, Moreland self-produced Big Bad Luv, but this time, instead of playing most of the instruments himself, he enlisted the help of a studio engineer and a full band.
Aside from the preponderance of love, the devil is another recurring theme on Big Bad Luv, showing up on four of the album's 11 tracks. Moreland grew up in a Christian household but has since distanced himself from organized religion. He’s not entirely surprised by the devil's outsized role on the new album, given the past year or two. "I don't believe in Satan. I think the devil is just anything that sucks," he says. "I think the devil is just like assholes and racists and homophobes: All the shitty things about the world."
Moreland has also peppered his new album with several more pokes at his penchant for misery. "If we don't bleed it don't feel like a song," he teases at one point. Two songs later, he asks a question that he's asked himself many times over the past few years, when the way his music was being received had made him self-doubting and insecure about his life's work.
"What if I'm just a bastard," he sings, "laying low inside your radio?"
To overcome the depression that came with those thoughts, nowadays Moreland simply disregards the sad-bastard narrative and refuses to let it define his own life or his own art. "Mentally, I've been railing against that for a couple of years," he says. "I've adopted the mentality of 'that's bullshit, I'm not sad.' I'm a real person who is sad sometimes, and happy other times, and that's how it is."