“It’s proof that the bad days do get better / It’s proof that love is still alive …”
In 2019, Arlo McKinley played a show at the High Watt in Nashville. While he had years of such gigs on the DIY singer-songwriter circuit behind him, this night was different. In the audience was one of his musical heroes, John Prine. When they met briefly beforehand, Prine, who never gave praise lightly, told Arlo he was a fan.
McKinley recalls, “Just that moment, if that’s where it ended, it would’ve been one of the coolest things that ever happened to me, something I remembered forever.”
But it didn’t end there. Shortly after, he was signed to Oh Boy Records, Prine’s indie label. Arlo came into 2020 with the momentum of a new album on deck – his first with a producer and a street team – and an international tour booked. Then things took a strange turn.
“Right before the record came out, my mother passed away,” he says. “She had always supported me and she didn’t get to see this stuff happen for me. Then one of my best friends died shortly after. And I lost two other friends to drug addiction. I was trying to navigate through all the emotions of that.”
And of course, like all musicians that year, he couldn’t tour.
A soft-spoken introvert who’s open about his past drink and drug addictions, McKinley had to look to himself to find comfort. And in the process, he wrote the songs for what’s become his latest release, the aptly-titled This Mess We’re In.
“I’m kind of private with a lot of things I go through, but in my songs, I’m honest about everything,” he says with a smile. “So I started to write as a way of getting stuff out. To me, this is a growth record. I was navigating through a pretty bad time, but also there was the realization that it’s time to really change, find a better way of life. My last album was me figuring out whether to stay or go from a very confused spot in my life. This one is trying to better myself – as a musician, as a human being, as a friend.”
When talking about his music, McKinley often uses the word “navigate.” And indeed, the eleven songs on This Mess We’re In feel like compasses to help orient himself in an uncertain world. The opener “I Don’t Mind,” an ode to self-forgiveness that gathers a quiet power through each verse, sets the mood. From the plaintive reckonings of lives in limbo on “City Lights” and “Back Home” to the delicate devastation of “Stealing Dark From The Night Sky” and the catchy, Neil Young-grooved “Rushintherug,” through the gorgeous, widescreen piano-and-strings balladry of the title track and the hymn-like “Here’s To The Dying,” these are songs that take their time revealing their secrets. They come from deep inside and go deep inside, speaking to you through McKinley’s warm, oaky voice and leaving you a little different than how you came in. They make you feel seen.