Growing up on a horse farm in Iowa, and still living on one, is as central to William Elliott Whitmore’s persona as Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey upbringing is to his. Of course, Whitmore is nowhere near as accomplished as Springsteen—not that it keeps Whitmore from channeling the Boss somewhat on his eighth full-length, Field Songs, a procession of hollered, homespun busking that follows in Nebraska’s heavy footsteps.
But pigeonholing Whitmore by his influences is as shortsighted as doing so by his rural roots. His voice, an increasingly formidable piece of weaponry, reached its apparent apotheosis in 2009’s Animals In The Dark, an apocalyptically bluesy disc that transcends its workmanlike folk template. Field Songs dials back that massiveness: Accompanied by the chirping of crickets or birds, each song reins in Whitmore’s craggy, righteous howl, calming it with gentle strums and the weary plucking of acoustic guitar and banjo.
That intimacy, though, is as unsettling as it is soothing. His lyrics are cloaked in the dusty imagery and hard-bitten soulfulness of the heartland countryside. “The shotgun is loaded / It hangs above the kitchen door / When you took sick, we all knew you wouldn’t be around to protect us anymore,” he sings on the aching “We’ll Carry On.” And though that rustic snapshot edges perilously close to self-parody for Whitmore, the track—and Field Songs as a whole—also sharply defines his elemental strengths.