"Is there anybody alive out there?" Bruce Springsteen yelled into the abyss on 2007's "Radio Nowhere." A decade later, Ryan Culwell poses a similar, but even more urgent question: "Can you hear me?" That query drives the Nashville-by-way-of-Texas singer-songwriter's new song "Can You Hear Me." Premiering today, it's the first taste of Culwell's upcoming album The Last American, the follow-up to 2015's marvelous Flatlands.
Opening with ghostly atmospherics that resurface later on in skronky feedback, "Can You Hear Me" is a mellifluent blast of Eighties dream-pop that evokes both the soul-searching lyricism and huge choruses of Springsteen. A far cry from the more acoustic fare of Flatlands, it's an immersive, glossy listen, made for late nights, quality headphones or, even better, as the soundtrack to an episode of Stranger Things. But as in that haunting series, there are threats lurking beneath the surface here. For some, it's the increasingly difficult task of staying sane in an upended United States, but for minorities in this country, the consequences are as dire as ever.
Culwell, a father of four daughters, says he was thinking of Eric Garner, the black man who died after being choked by police in New York in 2014, when he wrote the song. He repeats "I can't breathe," Garner's own pleading words that became a rallying cry in protests against police brutality, over and over again in the song.
"'Can You Hear Me' took a long time to write because I was cracking into something new inside myself. Raising four daughters in a 950 square foot house doesn't really allow me to block off time or space to write, so I just write in the moment around the house. When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, 'I can't breathe,' but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind," Culwell tells Rolling Stone. "It's not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing 'I can't breathe' 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can't love your neighbor as yourself if you're not even listening to him."
Culwell seems to hang onto hope, however. At the conclusion of "Can You Hear Me," he signs off with the lyric "It's threes and eights / can you hear me" – trucker shorthand for "good luck."
Recorded in Nashville at Southern Ground Studios with a producer team of Neilson Hubbard, Ethan Ballinger and Megan McCormick, The Last American will be released August 24th via Missing Piece Records.
Here's the track list for The Last American:
1. "Can You Hear Me"
2. "Dig a Hole"
3. "The Last American"
4. "Moon Hangs Down"
5. "Heaven Everywhere I Go"
6. "Fucked Up Too"
7. "Nobody Loves You"
8. "Dog's Ass"
9. "I Have a Dream"
10. "Tie My Pillow to a Tree"