Romantica Review

On February 4, Romantica debuts its first album in seven years. Was it worth the wait?

Ben Kyle is a hallelujah kind of guy; it rolls off his tongue like hello. He’s written music for his church, and his own songs are suffused with the comforts and confidences of spiritual succor. He’s a believer, and he takes the long view.

So when he decided to get the band back together, after a five-year hiatus, he prayed about it, and thought about it some more. And then he called in the troops—the latest incarnation of Romantica. It was time.

But Kyle is also a dad. And a dad. And a dad. And a dad. And a dad. Five kids. And the rest of Romantica has eight more. So Kyle booked the Minneapolis–based band for a leisurely 10 days at a leisurely kind of place: Shepherd’s Hill Farm, in southern Minnesota, where the kids could run around and the guys could focus on recording. A musical lock-in.

It had been a tough five years, a kind of wandering in the wilderness. Romantica had landed its second album, America, on Paste magazine’s Best of 2007 list—right above Prince—and was positioned to inherit the mantle of alt-country royalty. But after a stunt follow-up in 2009—writing and recording an album in a single day at the South by Southwest Festival, largely to fulfill their label’s demands—the momentum stalled. More label battles. Burgeoning families. There was no getting into the studio.

Kyle spent the hiatus recording a solo album and duets with Carrie Rodriguez, the Texas fiddle queen, and touring on his own. But he never gave up on the band. “It feels like a resurrection,” he says now, a metaphor he doesn’t use lightly. Which means that something first had to die.

“A picture to have in your mind,” he tells the band in the making-of movie released ahead of the new album. “The desert. Joshua Tree [National Park].” Shadowlands, the name of the new album, is a nod to C.S. Lewis, the spiritual thinker who came from Kyle’s hometown of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. It’s also a Biblical reference: “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned.”

“Hallelujah, does the light go through ya?” Kyle sings on the opening track, and it’s not a rhetorical question. Kyle has become a master of mid-tempo, which opens up a generous space he fills with lush harmonies and pedal steel—what Ryan Adams first became famous for. (They have shared a stage.) It’s the crack that lets the light in.

Kyle has a voice, dripping with soul and sincerity, that could—all on its own—convert a congregation to whatever religion he chose. But that’s not his agenda. “It’s getting harder to hear from God these days,” he sings. “There’s so much religion in the way.” Shadowlands clears the cobwebs, opens the windows, and seems to shed weight as it goes along, breaking into a gallop on the nostalgic final number, “Shandy Bass,” a kind of lemonade-soaked beer ubiquitous in Belfast.

“…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” wrote T.S. Eliot, a quote appended to the liner notes of Shadowlands. Romantica has done more than pick up where it left off, it has grown wiser. The new record is a hallelujah from the mountaintop, country soul in the truest sense. Music to sustain the lilies of the field, in lieu of light.

Romantica will release Shadowlands at the Fitzgerald Theater on February 4. Purchase tickets here.