In Kurt Vonnegut’s debut novel, 1952’s Player Piano, the author delivered one of his defining ideas through the mouth of his character Ed Finnerty: “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center… Big, undreamed-of things—the people on the edge see them first.” Seventy years on, the Kentucky-based songwriter Ryan Davis traces life’s edges in the same spirit, contemplating the human capacities for open-hearted euphoria and harrowing pain.
Dancing on the Edge is Davis’ first record under his own name, but it’s hardly a debut: He’s fronted the ragged rock band State Champion, led Louisville’s heady Cropped Out festival, and established Sophomore Lounge, an indie label with a fierce DIY spirit. In carrying his own banner forward, Davis steps into more of a singer-songwriter role, calibrating his focus on twangy, witty tunes. With the humor and wisdom of a good-natured barfly, he shares his meditations on mortality and finding purpose in a short, messy stint on Earth.
Davis has a gift for vivid imagery and inventive turns of phrase, which he applies liberally. As evidenced by the extended metaphor he offers in “Junk Drawer Heart,” Davis homes in on the details of life with idiosyncratic precision. He says he’s seen “sunsets through each and every shade of beer,” and in shaking off the black clouds that chase him, he declares, “Constantine didn’t make Saturday night for sitting here acting like this.” Enumerating the rest would spoil the fun of their patient unfurling, but Davis’ inclinations cast him as an affable narrator of rough and rowdy environs. He hits a Kenny Powers-esque high of crass poetry when he observes the inevitability of the dirty truth coming to light: “Blacklight will find the jizz.”
Elsewhere, Davis sings openly about fear and vulnerability. Here, too, he finds moments of levity as he’s confronting his deepest existential concerns. He describes “playing ‘got your nose’ with the face of death” in “Learn 2 Re-Luv,” an accounting of imperfections with an imploring heart. The colorful moments have their poignant complements, as when he circles a more pronounced sense of hopelessness in “Bluebirds in a Fight.” He rests his observations on piano, pedal steel, and cushy bass padding, prioritizing a somber mood that diverges from the record’s prevailing mellow but restless spirit.
The loose arrangements of Davis’ backing Roadhouse Band swing further into cosmic-slacker territory than the more serrated stuff he’s delivered with State Champion. Acoustic guitars set a sanguine tone that Christopher May chases on pedal steel, and synthy flashes add more jolts of color. The harmonic twists match the exploratory spirit of Davis’ metaphors, enhanced by vocal contributions from guests like Joan Shelley, Will Lawrence, and Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin. The songs tend to lope along with the relaxed pleasure of taking the scenic route home. In the unhurried “A Suitable Exit,” he repeats the phrase “Death has loaned us to life,” while a corkscrewing fiddle line helps carry the point.
Davis makes his most ambitious swing with the 10-minute “Flashes of Orange,” where he ruminates on disappointment, scuttled luck, and yearning, sounding tortured by the chasm between dream life and cold reality. At first listen, it’s never clear where Davis is leading, but the song’s radiant warmth, overlapping waves of synth and pedal steel, and a sumptuous chorus of backing vocalists are amiable invitations into his world. Davis’ wistful, whoa-dude delivery of the title in the furthest reaches of the song is the only place where the record tips into pure goofiness, and it passes without derailing the album’s pensive disposition.
In the closing “Bluebirds Revisited,” Davis casts his eye beyond the mortal coil. “I started out a butterfly detective, then I became a teenage alcoholic, now I’m trying to get to heaven, or whatever you’d call it,” he confesses, finding some semblance of peace while “barreling forward while my memories riot behind me.” In his investigation of the human spirit, Davis has learned to embrace worry and wonder as companions for a restless heart. His place at the edge may be perilous, precarious, and occasionally lonely, but it’s got one hell of a view.