Bill Abernathy wowed critics and listeners from coast to coast with his last album, the modest Find A Way, and in his latest offering Crossing Willow Creek he filters the most alluring qualities in his repertoire and elevates them to previously unreachable heights. Instead of focusing his efforts on improving upon the sound he presented us with in Find A Way, he reimagines his entire approach to musicality and aesthetics with this record; the blues tones are much more foreboding, the country themes are streamlined and polished, and the folk music feels more observational, honest and personal. Fans who were expecting more of the same might be surprised by how colorful this record is, but those of us who wanted to hear what Bill Abernathy could really do in the studio will celebrate this for the watershed moment it truly is.
“Willow Creek,” “Meant to Be,” “Any Port,” “Love’s in Vain” and “Icarus” are the blood and guts of the folk component in Crossing Willow Creek, and each one of them utilizes a different facet of Abernathy’s dexterous skillset. “Willow Creek” is an intimate confessional that welcomes us into his world from the perspective he sees it in – the prose is exciting, evocative and doesn’t overindulge despite the constant temptation. “Meant to Be” and “Love’s in Vain” are much more bittersweet and elegiac in their tone, emphasizing his sensitive side, while on the other hand “Icarus” and “Any Port” are self-assured and pragmatic both structurally and creatively. Bill Abernathy isn’t a one trick pony, and he makes sure we know it by the end of this record.
While I wouldn’t go as far as to ever describe Abernathy as being a country musician, there’s an undeniable country influence over Crossing Willow Creek that is most noticeable in its first three songs. We get rolling with “Can’t Go Back,” a song that is steeped in vinyl-era Nashville grooves and doesn’t mind employing a familiar story as its central theme, and immediately jump into “Changes,” which doesn’t cosmetically fit in with contemporary country but when broken down to nuts and bolts is tantamount to anything the genre’s best acts have produced in recent years. This layer is an important one if for no other reason than to finish the Americana-inspired framework that this album wears with pride, and I think it also aids in the mainstream accessibility of the more relaxed material.
There’s actually quite a rock n’ roll bloodline flowing through Crossing Willow Creek’s foundation, and it rears its head firmly in the southern swing of “Whiskey Road.” Like “White Knight” and the more subtle rockery of “Yuppie Blues,” “Whiskey Road” fashions its riffs burning hot and dangerously nimble, which contributes a spiciness to this record that is more than searing enough to keep rock-inclined listeners glued to their speakers. It’s a nice touch that despite the unpredictability of these tracks, there’s a connective stitching in the tone that makes them feel like they belong together (which is a rather big concern when making a record as ambitious in design as this one).
Crossing Willow Creek is the antithesis of fractured pop LPs; it’s an amalgamation of all-American styles of play compressed into a glowing, radiant folk record by a rising star in the Midwestern roots music scene. As far as I’m concerned this is a breakthrough record for Bill Abernathy, who got our attention with Find A Way but pulls out all the stops to deliver a masterpiece in his new album. 2018 has been an incredibly exciting year for popular music on both the underground and mainstream levels, and if Abernathy continues to turn out records as intriguing as this one he’s going to find himself living quite well on the mainstream side of the business come the 2020s.