Album Review: The Ruralists — ‘Trying’

“I pray to the saints,” begins the Ruralists’ “pandemic album,” Trying. Then, later, with the strained tension of drawn out tones and stretched-then-resolving chords, album opener “HereNow” continues, “And I wait/on the word/on the whisper never heard/though I listen with all my might.”

The northwestern Iowa band includes several members who teach at Sioux City’s evangelical Dordt University. And, like every intersection of faith and learning, Trying is exploring meaning in ways both familiar and discomfiting, tying the shit we see happening around us to the reality we believe underpins all truth — or, well, it’s trying to.

Yes, I said evangelical back there. If you’re alive in the 21st century in America, you probably have a complicated relationship with that term. There’s a strata of Christian churches that claim it and utilize it as a way to persecute and judge. But at its core, it’s a practice of questioning and understanding. And besides, I wouldn’t be using these few sparse words to throw some Stryper or even Jars of Clay at you. The Ruralists, and this album, strike a more sonorous chord; they use faith as a lens, not a hammer.

Coming in hot at track two, “Mother Mary” delivers smooth jazz vibes recalling a certain corner of the 1980s that rejected that decade’s frivolity for denser excesses. Both the tonality of the piece and the rolling sax line in the background are echoes of the best collaborations between Sting and Branford Marsalis.

“What is this ache/threatening to break/my heart in two?” It’s the experience of swimming through the languid ecstasy of track three, “Time.” The choral assertion is tinged with acceptance of futility: “The trouble with time is/the line that it flies/is straight and true.” But later, the track’s crashing cymbals still, and the lyrics admit, “Course, a shortness of breath/doesn’t always lead to death.” The slowing metronome closer allows “Time” to continue even past its end.

Tracks like “Strange Machines” (“Aren’t we strange machines / human beings?”) and “People Are People Too” drive themes of acceptance home in unsubtle ways that might be redundant or reductive if they weren’t wrapped in such engaging instrumentation. The lyrics and music intertwine, passing off intent like a baton, exploring new territory when they can and at other times reinforcing the lessons of the other.

Then comes “Helluvathing”: “When I mention, ‘Jesus Christ,’ I know you roll your eyes. To tell the truth, most days I do, too.”

It’s a plaintive, longing track, anchored in a shared search that carries more weight than any one answer ever could. “And we both might find ourselves awake asking what all of this means.”

The choral outro, which echoes the final line (“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here”) sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” works both at the surface level and deeper, when you discover or recall that in World War I, British soldiers sang that in the trenches, as they pondered meaning in ways unfathomable to most of us now.

The rest of the album persists in mixing facts and philosophy in ways that comfort and challenge in equal measure, wrapping up with a discordant, carnival-esque chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the end of album closer “Right‽” which leaves you wondering whether there might be more answers to the question of life in the living than in the questioning.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s April 2023 issues.