Texas Country traditionalists Josh Abbott Band approach each project with a theme — 2012’s Small Town Family Dream was a pointed critique of Music City; 2010’s She’s Like Texas, a Lonestar State-sized love letter. Their newest, Front Row Seat, is the most honest, affecting form of art: the break-up album. EW has an exclusive premiere of it in full below.
Presented in five acts, Front Row Seat unfurls the entirety of a spent relationship. Young and carefree gives way to falling in love, which leads to falling apart, which tumbles into devastation. In time, it leads to nothing; no longer knowing each other at all. Looking for a tale as old as time? Here it is.
“The stories are mine,” lead singer Josh Abbott says, introducing the album’s origins, “but they’re not necessarily hers and mine.” Let us explain. Front Row Seat parallels Abbott’s marriage, which ended last year, but doesn’t exactly follow it true to form. He and his ex-wife didn’t skinny-dip in the Texas Tech fountain like the couple on “Live It While You Got It,” and the song “Autumn,” about a woman leaving a lover behind and not looking back, Abbott wrote before they were ever married. Some of the tracks, he didn’t write at all — like the devastating “Born To Break Your Heart” or the Ruston Kelly-penned title track. “But they all tell the story right,” he says. “The smaller details aren’t the point of the story.”
But perhaps the details are important here. Abbott, who married his now-estranged wife Amanda Abbott in 2010, struggled to keep his alcohol intake in check and his hands to himself on the road, as “Kisses We Steal” alludes. While at times despairing, Front Row Seat doesn’t pine for sympathy. “I haven’t made a record that pities me,” Abbott says. “That was a time in my life that I’m not proud of and have moved on from. [But] I want people to hear the honesty. I hope they realize they didn’t just buy an album that had 11 songs, all three-minute, radio-sounding hits that maybe don’t resonate with any feeling but are just catchy. I hope they hear 16 tracks that tell a story and an honest one at that, made with real emotion. I hope, by the end of it, they feel something.”
Guitarist Caleb Keeter was blown away when he first heard the songs that would make up the album’s back-half – the tracks that Abbott wrote in his divorce. “When we first heard them, the hairs on my neck started standing up,” he says. “It was like, ‘Man, I don’t care if this is radio successful. This is what music’s supposed to be about — you’re supposed to talk about real things, and get raw.'”
The album finds gravity in the particularly vulnerable “Ghosts,” which shows Abbott at his lowest. “I was supposed to hold your heart / like the grains of sand through my hands, it fell apart,” he sings with palpable contrition. One line is especially haunting: “I daydream of demons who give me the reasons to fall / It’s so much easier to numb the pain than feel it all.” He says, “Honestly… that was a line about contemplating suicide and battling drinking.” By the last chorus, Abbott’s voice gives in to emotion. Thick and off-pitch, it’s perfect.
“Ghosts” is followed by “This Isn’t Easy (Her Song),” a space reserved for his ex-wife. “I wrote that from her perspective,” he says. He’s played it for her, explaining “[It’s] me trying to be super fair in this process. Obviously I’ll never know all the things she went through but I wanted to make this effort, to have her reply.” In singing her imagined words, Abbott curses his own name and hurls doubt at himself as to whether he’ll ever be able to change — a perhaps unintended but affecting consequence.
Front Row Seat, for all its aching, is not wholly sad. The first seven songs swing and stomp in all the ways the Josh Abbott Band-faithful have come to love. They’re raucous and rowdy, but also bigger, fuller — better. “We didn’t just throw everything people liked about us out the door,” Keeter says. “[But] we’re all different musicians than we were three or four years ago.” Abbott continues, “We’re not just the same college, party, frat-boy band that we started out as. We had a lot of fun making those records, but I don’t want to look back at the end of our career and see that we made seven, eight, or however many records that all sound the same — I hope people appreciate that.”
Front Row Seat is out next week, Nov. 6, via Pretty Damn Tough Records.