Tragical History Tour’s new EP Old Words is four tracks of great, gritty, emotive songwriting. This is the mostly-solo project from Make That A Take Records’ Derrick Johnston, the latest EP in a long and colourful history of similarly spirited projects.
Johnston’s a seriously accomplished songwriter, and Old Words continues to demonstrate the richness of his talent. A lot of sadness, sorrow and thought has gone into these songs, which allows them instantly to tap into your emotions. It’s feels like a slice of perfect Americana or alt-country, but with a Scottish backbone that’s both unusual and fucking delightful.
Title track Old Words is a hefty foot-tapper of an opener. The tones of the acoustic guitar remind me of Love Is Hell-era Ryan Adams, while Johnston’s vocal recalls Chuck Ragan if he’d spent the last five years smoking Marlboros and gargling glass shards. Towards the end the song lifts with an unexpected little electric guitar line that weaves into the rest of the tune seamlessly, contrasting beautifully with the pessimistic lyrics.
The lighter, finger-picked opening to Gratitude is a nice change to Old Words, and it feels like a good natural progression between songs. This mournful track starts to incorporate some more earnest storytelling, demonstrating how well Johnston’s mastered his craft. His Scottish accent still gives his chewing-on-grit vocal a unique sandpaper edge that works well in these gentler songs. Lyrics like, “I refuse to give into choices I didn’t choose,” match the bitterness and optimism that’s conveyed in the combination of the gruff vocal and heartwarming, bright acoustic guitar.
This Is My Rifle continues in the same vein, with gritty vocals over warm six-string strumming. The song’s an exploration of accepting depression; the refrain, “I might look alright but I’m struggling tonight,” is deeply relatable. The song conveys the idea that depression is both universal and unique in a beautifully succinct and surprisingly upbeat fashion. I think it might be my favourite track on the EP.
The opening to Father’s Day is a lot lighter and more uplifting, although the subject matter of the song is still dark and stormy, dwelling on grief and recovery. The words reference writing a song to process your pain, and this feels like the outcome. “Tell me, what’s a punk to do?” Alongside that, the guitar reminds me a lot of the acoustic tracks that Simon Friend’s written with the Levellers; the same earnest and true punk rock conviction underlying much of the work on this EP. This is an acoustic version of a Uniforms song, but it works well in this format.
If you’ve got a beating heart in your chest it would be extremely hard not to enjoy and relate to the Old Words EP. It’s definitely worth a listen for any fans of gut-wrenching Americana, but Tragical History Tour has managed to combine sorrow and hope in a captivatingly unique fashion.
The EP is out now, although it’s due to form part of the forthcoming Aphorisms LP that’ll be out on Make That A Take Records and Aaahh! Real Records in 2018. You can download it from Tragical History Tour’s bandcamp page here.