Sarnia-born singer/songwriter Donovan Woods has a habit of making the ordinary extraordinary. It’s a quality that has earned him a prolific songwriting career in Nashville, crafting songs for big names like Tim McGraw (“Portland, Maine”) and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum (“Leaving Nashville”). Working again with Toronto-based producer James Bunton, Woods’ fifth LP Both Ways does just that – pulls in two different directions.
The album is a departure for Woods, both lyrically and sonically. Yet, between the give and take of sadness and happiness, of upbeat guitar-driven melodies and slower simplistic ruminations, Both Ways maintains the core of what earned Woods’ his fanbase in the first place. His classic story-telling style gives the listener enough information to paint a vivid picture, while remaining elusive enough to require them to fill in the blanks. It requires the listener to be an active participant, rather than a mere bystander.
Both Ways opens in an understated and perhaps unsuspected manner with “Good Lover”. While the title suggests the track is joyful (“good” is literally in the title), the reality is much different. Instead, the album begins with a mournful song about a couple cleaning out a house they both once lived in. Starting the album in such a way is a choice a less established, less confident songwriter may be too scared to take, but Woods is neither.
A hopeful turn comes with “Another Way”, a song with a mid-tempo shift that could crack a smile on the most pessimistic of faces. Woods sings, “We got married at a hotel in Michigan / I didn’t think it was something I was going to do again”. The narrative is captivating itself, but even more intriguing is the song’s last 30 seconds of instrumentation.
“Burn That Bridge”, meanwhile, tells the story of two friends falling in love. The accompanying music video provides LGBTQ representation that is undeniably lacking from the country/folk sphere, a genre that, for whatever reason, seems even more slow to social progress than the rest of the music world. And while newcomers to the scene like Maren Morris are leading a path for social change, the willingness of pinnacle members like Woods to step up is crucial.
The fourth track, “Truck Full of Money”, is undeniably autobiographical, recounting life on the road. In the self-deprecating manner that Woods’ does so well, he confesses, “Any guy here could learn to sing like this”. The track is also a good demonstration of why the “country” label that tends to get thrown his way is not an accurate depicter of his style. “Truck Full of Money” forgoes a country twang in favor of a building orchestra that seems to carry you though fields and over highways in a way that feels intense, exhausting and thoroughly thrilling, much like tour life itself.
But for those worried the album might be “too happy” don’t worry – the album promises some heartbreakers. Perhaps no track on Both Ways does a better job of this than “Our Friend Bobby”. It’s a story that is incredibly personal to Woods, yet that also may be all too familiar to those who have lost a childhood friend in adulthood. When you gather to mourn that loss, the memories that linger and questions that remain in the aftermath can’t help but make you wonder what you could have done–if anything–to change what happened. Moreover, the track deals with the complexities of the traits you once found so necessary in a friend (in this case, boyhood violence manifesting in protection from bullies) ultimately being that friend’s downfall.
Yet just when the album runs the risk of hitting a downward spiral of existential despair, Woods switches gears. “I Ain’t Ever Loved No One” features Rose Cousins and talks about the anxieties of bringing someone home to meet the family for the first time. The beauty of the song lies in its minimalist instrumentation. As opposed to songs like “Another Way” and “Burn That Bridge”, guitars and piano take a backseat to vocals. With lines like “You set the bar for this stubborn heart” and “When I said I loved you / I didn’t care if you said it back / I ain’t ever loved no one like that”, the song has the potential to either be the sweetest love song or the most melancholy ode to the one who got away. It’s up to the listener to decide.
“I Live a Little Lie”, “Easy Street” and “I Don’t Belong to You” let some country/bluegrass sensibilities slip through. “Easy Street” also boldly opens with a synth-y 80s feel which, while seemingly at odds with the rest of the album, finds its groove in its chorus.
The pace slows down with “Read About Memory”, a sad song hauntingly distorted to make Woods’ voice sound as if it were being projected from an old radio. The record then moves on to “Great Escape”, a ballad that starts slow but builds dramatically into an explosive crescendo.
The closing track, “Next Year”, is a cautionary tale of putting off until tomorrow what you could do today. The song details the times he postponed plans for the ever elusive “next year”, a dangerous habit brought to his attention by his son. As Woods warns, “It’s never quite next year”, so forget next year and do what you can today. The song is both sad and hopeful, and thus the perfect summation of what Both Ways has to say.
Through the epic orchestral highs and muted lows, the album finds its relatability in the way it beautifies the mundane. Specifically, love, loss and the human condition. Both Ways offers a duality most songwriters can only dream about achieving. Donovan Woods has an impressive career behind him, but what he has achieved thus far is merely an indicator of what he has lying before him.
“Truck Full of Money”
“I Ain’t Ever Loved No One”
The Head and the Heart
Pick up the album here.