The Jesus and Mary Chain? Nah. These days, when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club need inspiration, they just call on Jesus. In the past two years, something has happened to transform BRMC from a dead-eyed trio of noise peddlers to church-going country-blues converts. Maybe they realized that the question they asked on their 2000 debut — “Whatever Happened to My Rock N’ Roll?” — became moot as soon as a new onslaught of guitar bands arrived on the scene. Or maybe, after splitting with Virgin, they felt the creep of mortality setting in.
The first line of Howl — “Time won’t save our souls” — seems to suggest the latter, but who knows? While the band’s third full-length chronicles a crisis of faith, it skimps on the details, though song titles suggest that each member is a “Restless Sinner” who knows there “Ain’t No Easy Way” because the “Devil’s Waitin’,” so he’s just hoping for a “Gospel Song” to rescue him. And it does: “I will walk with Jesus till I can’t go anymore / And I will stay with Jesus till I can’t go another mile,” sings Robert Levon Been. As it turns out, JC is a decent bandleader, sitting in with BRMC as they demolish their wailing wall of sound in favor of back-porch acoustic strumming (“Shuffle Your Feet”) and Mississippi-burning harmonica (“Ain’t No Easy Way”).
Howl is not exactly the group’s Nebraska — BRMC dabble in too much “White Album” Beatlemania for that (“Sympathetic Noose,” “Promise”) — but it’s a general extension of that record. Bruce Springsteen stripped down his songs to reflect his pessimistic journey through the badlands; BRMC’s scaled-back sound is reflective of a group that’s come out on the other side of that trip and doesn’t want to hide behind feedback any longer. They own this take on Americana more than they ever owned the pedal pushing of their previous albums. If nothing else, they believe in it more. “I just want to be one true thing that’s unfake,” Been moans on the title track. And that moment of clarity sounds real.