Justin Rutledge is back with a new band, but the same ambient and rhythmic textures fill his new album, Passages, that is set for release on May 31st via Outside Music. Many Canadians will remember one of the new band members, Rob Baker, from the Tragically Hip. The friendship between Rutledge and Baker formed during Rutledge’s 2014 album, Daredevil, which pays tribute to the Tragically Hip.
The majority of Passages is recorded live off the floor, with minimal overdubs, however, Rutledge’s friend, Zac Rae (Death Cab For Cutie), recorded some guitar pieces at his studio in Los Angeles. Being proudly Canadian, it was important for Rutledge to keep as much of the original Toronto takes as possible on the record. With Passages, Rutledge keeps his Americana roots but with layers them of country instrumental, that come influenced by Four Tet and Nils Fraham. Rutledge believes that small shift is the album marks the changes in his life, expressing that, as his life pages turn, so do the pages of this songbook.
As expected from his previous albums, the opening track “Captive” starts with a subtle guitar strum before Rutledge’s gentle voice lulls over a swinging melody. Though his voice may be gentle, Rutledge’s tone is assertive and strong before a female voice drops in. The feminine accent creates a conversational tone and delimits the vulnerability from the subtle opening. The song is about being held captive in love, which is fitting given the major life changes that Rutledge has gone through over the past few years, as he has moved back and forth over provinces, and got married to the woman he is expecting a baby with in July.
Title track “Passages” is about his wife Sarah. The guitar riff is light which creates a brightness to the love song, and this tends to be an anomaly in country music, the happiness is encompassed by the line “I think our love is something natural when all of the world is unbearable” before repeating the words “I think we have it all” in a dreamy, lullaby-ish manner. However, the next track, “Good Man”, wakes us right back up with a quick beat and a happy-go-lucky tone that country is known for, showing us that Rutledge hasn’t grown too far from his country roots.
While most of the album is relatively poppy, the final track on the album weighs in heavier. From one famous Canadian to another, “Boats”, is a collaboration with the Canadian literary giant, Michael Ondaatje. Rutledge describes watching Ondaatje write the song as an educational experience. This track sounds is as delicate as Ondaatje’s writing, which is only complimented by Rutledge’s smooth musical composition. Although delicate, the song carries strength with a hearty drum beat throughout.
Overall, Passages is a mastery of Canadian music in all aspects, especially songwriting, composition and production. A country artist and album that isn’t stuck in stereotypes, Justin Rutledge’s Passages makes way for new sounds in the country genre.