The ghostly background figure on the cover of New Orleans singer and guitarist Luke Winslow-King’s 2014 album “Everlasting Arms” is Esther Rose. She was, at the time, his wife and a member of his band.
She haunts Winslow-King’s new “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always,” too, but in a very different way. The album’s nine songs derive largely from the dissolution of the couple's marriage.
“I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” is for Winslow-King what “Sea Change” was for Beck, “Rumours” was for Fleetwood Mac and “Blue” was for Joni Mitchell: A cathartic collection of finely wrought songs distilled from heartbreak.
To mark the album’s release, Winslow-King and his band will perform Friday night at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street; the Tin Men, featuring guitarist/singer Alex McMurray, rubboard player “Washboard” Chaz Leary and sousaphonist Matt Perrine, are also on the bill.
The 33-year-old Winslow-King has honed his considerable American roots music skills both in the classroom and on the streets. A Michigan native, he led a blues band as a teenager. A tour in the early 2000s landed him in New Orleans, which he found to his liking despite the theft of his band’s van and instruments.
He studied music at the University of New Orleans and busked on Royal Street. He worked his way up to Frenchmen Street clubs, playing with traditional jazz revival bands and backing vocalist Meschiya Lake and many others. He now tours all over the world, sharing stages with the likes of Jack White.
His own music has always skewed vintage. His earlier efforts – “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” is his fifth album, and third national release for the respected Americana music label Bloodshot – favored pre-World War II blues. His natty, Depression-era sartorial style only reinforced his presentation’s retro quality.
The blues-based “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” is his most contemporary-sounding project to date, perhaps due to the immediacy of its inspiration: Much of the material was written and recorded while he and his band toured Italy in 2015, as his marriage broke apart.
His songwriting has never been sharper. “Change Your Mind” would not sound out of place on a Ben Harper album, with its simple yet beguiling melody, lyrics and arrangement. “Did you change your mind about me, while I was locked away across town?” Winslow-King sings in an even, deliberate cadence. “When I got out in June you were hummin’ a different tune/Did you change your mind about me?” A mournful little harmonica break follows.
In the ominous, country-flecked acoustic romp “Heartsick Blues,” he strings together titles of Hank Williams songs so naturally that they seem like wholly original lyrics. Matt Rhody’s bittersweet fiddle shadows Winslow-King’s intricate acoustic guitar.
He goes right to the heart of the matter with “Esther Please,” a loping variation on the 12-bar blues form. “I asked her please tell me what can I do,” he whispers/sings. “How could you, baby, leave a love that’s so true?” His voice is measured, as if he is trying to seduce her back from a position of strength while still struggling to hold himself together. The molten slide-guitar solo is a study in restraint and taste.
Throughout, Winslow-King shares guitar duties with Roberto Luti, as keyboardist Mike Lynch fills in the spaces around them and drummer Benji Bohannon and electric bassist Brennan Andes lay the foundation. Colin DuPuis, the Black Keys’ recording engineer, mixed the tracks, striking an agreeable balance among the instruments.
“Louisiana Blues” features some of Winslow-King’s most convincing vocals. “Watch Me Go” shows off Lynch’s understated approach to the organ. The band shifts gears for the tidy boogie and bounce of “Act Like You Love Me,” which favors Chicago-style blues. He bores deeper into Gary Clark Jr. territory with the blues stomp of the title track; distorted guitars swoop and brood across a recurring riff.
Perhaps to show his current state of mind, he bookends the album with its two most optimistic songs. The haunted, quivering slide guitar that opens the record gives way to “On My Way." It is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, but positioned at the album’s outset. The spry, well-assembled song – the bed of gospel organ is topped by curt guitar solos that evoke B.B. King and Derek Trucks – finds him determined to move on.
The disc concludes with the pick-myself-up and dust-myself-off resolve of "No More Crying Today." “I got so lost and lonely, I thought I lost my voice,” he sings. “Stood up and I saw myself, and realized I had a choice/They’ll be no more cryin’ today.”
The guitar solo tumbles into, then climbs out of, a hole, just as Winslow-King has done. “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always” is his way forward.