Country music suits Del Barber well. On Prairieography, the fourth album from the Winnipeg singer-songwriter, Barber shies away from the folkie romanticism of his previous several albums, leaning, instead, on the sounds, styles, and guidelines of traditional country for the first time. The result, a sprawling, fourteen song concept record that celebrates the Canadian prairie of Barber’s childhood, is the most fully realized, triumphant album of the songwriter’s young career.
Prairieography is full of stories of small town longing and big town regret. Drifters choose between oil, iron, cattle, or if they’re lucky, hockey, but every option feels like a dead end. Local kids grow restless and think about ditching town, but the leaving’s never easy (“Farewell, God Bless You, Goodbye”). Those who stay put and stick around are no better off (“It’s Harder Than You Think’).
Barber writes with a straight-laced directness that turn character sketches like “Arianna” and “Big Smoke” into big-picture narratives of hardship and separation. On the latter, which features a gut-punch second verse about childhood mishap turned into adult mistake, Barber proves he can write in high-minded metaphor whenever he wants.
Instead, Barber strives for profundity with simple story, particularly on the heartwarming portrayal of goofy true love “Peter and Jenny Lee,” which reads as a less depressing rewrite of John Prine’s “Donald and Lydia.” Barber also pokes fun at his new genre exploring on the campy, loveable “Country Girl.”
Del Barber’s geographic ode shares a good deal with The River and the Thread, Rosanne Cash’s recent album which investigates and interrogates a place, and a region (the American South) with as much sympathy and grace as Prairieography. But Cash, who has lived north of the Mason-Dixon line for over two decades, is more interested in myth, legend, and history in her arresting travelogue. Barber, who, like one of his characters, has never quite been able to leave home for good, sticks to realism in his portrayal of a land he knows all too well. It’s a perfect fit.