The third official collaboration between Buddy & Julie Miller — long one of the Americana scene’s reigning power couples — is not a divorce album, though it sounds like it might have been a close shave. Arriving a full decade after their previous release, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South documents a difficult season in which health concerns laid Julie low; Buddy threw himself into a second life as record producer and sideman; the couple’s musical synergies dried up; misunderstandings, resentments, and hurt feelings festered. The songs on the new album, which is named for the couple’s actual Nashville residence, feel weathered but hopeful, at times almost therapeutic in their commitment to bringing secrets to light in the pursuit of healing and forgiveness. Even the sound of these new songs, bedroom recordings centered on Buddy’s guitar and the Millers’ always-buoyant harmonies, are suggestive of intimate domesticity.
The Millers have always written from a place of candor, but Breakdown includes some of their most brutally plainspoken material to date. On the tender “Secret,” Buddy hopes that, if he loses the love of his life, he can at least hold on to some privacy; and in the bluesy “Unused Heart,” Julie disdains an emotionally unavailable partner (“You might as well be made out of wood,” she says, a painfully curt dismissal). Yet the mere existence of this album, hailed by fans as miraculous when it was first announced, ratifies reconciliation as a real possibility: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is plucky and playful, with ramshackle percussion that might as well be the rattle of bedposts or cabinet drawers, and “Til the Stardust Comes Apart” is a statement of devotion so clean and pure it could pass for a Songbook standard. The martial drums of “War Child” provide valuable context for these songs, which take place in a world where things can and do fall apart, but larger realities are evoked in “Thoughts at 2am,” the latest in a long line of stirring Christian spirituals from Julie Miller — this one suggesting a deity benevolent enough to care even about our hurt feelings and marital jitters. Here’s hoping she’s right.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 5