Here is how to do this: Put on Ha Ha Tonka's new record, Lessons. Sit back. Close your eyes. You're lying on the grass, under the stars, breathing with the music.
After less than a minute, the band has drawn you in. "Dead to the World," the first song, extends a hand to you with its sweeping orchestral introduction. Lead singer Brian Roberts tells you that he has had his eyes closed to the possibilities around him, then declares, in the epic chorus, that he doesn't want to be dead to the world anymore. He sings this as though he has just woken up, as though he has been shot with adrenaline. He is telling you the mission statement for the rest of the album.
Over the next 50 minutes, Roberts, drummer Lennon Bone, bassist Luke Long and guitarist Brett Anderson go about living very fully. Lessons is the band's fourth record, and though Ha Ha Tonka has had a good thing going for a while, this may be the moment when things get great.
Being an indie Americana band today is a tough and tired road, the advent and subsequent ubiquity of Mumford & Sons having cheapened a usually dependable genre. Yet, on Lessons, Ha Ha Tonka rises above the banality that hamstrings lesser folk-rock acts. The album blossoms, song by song, into rustic poetry.
It's poetry that is full of heavy themes, with Roberts exploring the inevitable washing of innocence and time ("Colorful Kids," "Past Has Arms") and the broken cycle of the American dream ("American Ambition"). That he does this without dragging you into a ring of depression is a feat that Roberts credits to an unlikely inspiration.
"I was listening to the PBS interview with Maurice Sendak, and he was talking about his views on life and art and living life to the fullest," Roberts says. "The interview — if you haven't heard it, Google it. It's the best thing I've ever heard; it'll break you down into tears. Just the way that he's able to see the world with hope and optimism, and not wanting to give up or forget — I wanted to get at that."
Optimism doesn't come without difficulty. Midway through the album, the title track begins with a stark electric guitar and a pulsing beat, and Roberts growls: My heart is hurting/I don't know what to say or when. But part of Ha Ha Tonka's accomplishment on Lessons is that, for all its heaviness, the record is an easy, joyful listen. "Rewrite Our Lives" makes an uplifting, arena-sized sound out of the line brand-new start with a synthetic heart. Even "Terrible Tomorrow" — in which Roberts dreams that he replaces President Lincoln inside Ford's Theatre, then wakes up and checks the back of his head for blood — gets a cheerful presentation, with soaring electric guitars and big organ notes. Throughout, gentle harmonies fit effortlessly among hard riffs and rumbling drumbeats.
It's an extension of a sound that Ha Ha Tonka has been crafting since its 2007 debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt. A sound we can safely call classic Ozark.
Roberts says, "We're from Kansas City. Lennon and Brett are really a part of this community, and that reflects in our music. We all grew up around here, so we want to keep the sound of the Ozarks in our music. I think it's just so ingrained in our DNA that it always comes out in small ways."
Fine-grained detail is part of what makes Lessons so rewarding, but nothing feels forced. Two-thirds of the way through the 13-track album, "Pied Pipers" appears, a carefree tambourine rambler to clear the air and keep Lessons as casual as the classic country-folk album it wants to be.
Still, by the time you arrive at the ambling, earthy closer, "Prove the World Wrong," you're tired. And so is Roberts. You can hear the weariness scratching his voice: I set out to prove the world wrong, and all the lessons I've learned ... have only taught me that I'm stubborn.
It takes stubbornness to make a battered and bruised collection of human truths sound so pleasing. Lessons is like tarnished heirloom silver, precious and heavier than you might think but modest. Ha Ha Tonka is saying something here — something big and hopeful — while playing like a band only just realizing how good it is.
"Whenever we make our music together, it just comes out," Roberts says. "It's kind of our way, inevitably." He laughs and goes on: "You never want to brag, but I really think it's our best album to date. We've talked about it, how lucky we were that everything worked out the way it did, and it's really special. I think we've had the most fun we've ever had. If people enjoy listening to it half as much as we enjoyed making it, I think we're in a good place."