The word “townie” has immediate connotations, usually pejorative, for anyone who’s spent time in a college town.
The word is a badge of honor on the cover and title track of Lawrence band The Roseline’s fourth album, where singer-songwriter Colin Halliburton describes the status as “one part embarrassment and two parts pride."
More than pride, though, what Halliburton expresses is an earned feeling of contentment, a realization that what he has in a hometown, meager as it is, is good enough. The song describes his one-month move to New York City and his return to Lawrence, landing back home at the airport, looking around and feeling “haute couture at last.”
It’s tempting to consider the search for home and big cities versus small towns as the concept behind the album. Those themes are prominent in a few of the other songs, most notably the final two. “Cities With Clout” expresses wonder and perhaps bitterness at friends who leave their small Midwestern towns for bigger, hipper cities on the coasts and spend all their time there doing the same things they did back home: working service-industry jobs, drinking and commiserating with others who’ve made the same move.
"A Children’s Game” captures the feeling of being one of the few people aging in a town of young people. Summertime, when the kids are all gone, is paradise. This world-weary attitude runs through Townie, though that only goes part way to describing the cocktail of self-interrogation, self-determination, longing, panic, exhaustion, rebellion, sadness, contrition and hope that drives the protagonists of these songs.
The album’s depiction of dive-bar nightlife is alluring even though Halliburton admits it's getting old. His attempts to find a woman who will take care of his battered soul feel endearing and romantic, even as we see through them. On “A Malleable Posture” he does his best to analyze these perspectives at the same time as he expresses them. He needs “human heat” from another person; no really he’s looking for somebody calm and forgiving who can smooth over his edges and distract him from the ringing in his ears, his addictions and impulses. But to really earn that, he would need to be straight with himself and learn to open up to others — he would need to change.
“Clean Lines” tells a similar story, but spells out the mental-health connotations the other songs dance around. The album’s most densely built narrative, it spins a tale of pills and hospital stays meant to handle persistent fears and panic attacks. In its most visceral image, a man sits in a car at a stoplight when invisible hands come down from above, grip his heart and threaten to never let go.
The Roseline’s not unfamiliar style of alt-country/Americana is suited for Townie’s late-night bar visits and its center in the landscapes of the Midwest. It quickly brings to mind Whiskeytown’s 1997 album Strangers Almanac, but there’s more to it than that. More piano, for one. Piano here serves a tender supporting role that leavens and comments on the songs’ battles with darkness.
The Roseline indulges in and thrives off of what’s essentially a cliche: the macho, tormented bad boy living a reckless life, seeking an ordinary woman who can understand him, tame him and calm his demons, at least until he inevitably moves on down the road. But the clear-eyed, focused way the band tackles that familiar tale is impressive. That focus, combined with the way Halliburton questions the persona he’s constructing as he’s constructing it, energizes the album, making it stand out.
What is the goal of all this searching, or what one song describes as “seeking oblivion”? In "Feckless," the first track, Halliburton declares, “I just want to find some meaning in life that is meaningful.” That lyric at first feels lazy, but it acquires significance with further listening. The battle at hand isn't between meaninglessness and meaning. The people inhabiting these songs are finding things to hold onto — the sticky vinyl of bar booths, their own frailties and habits — and investing them with deep meaning. Whether that’s the meaning they want to define their lives is another story.