Anna St. Louis — If Only There Was A River (2018) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
One of the personal joys through the lows of lockdown has been a group chat with 17 friends where each of us take it in turns to share a different album every day, accompanied by a short blurb or a few lines on why you’ve chosen the record. This is an extended version of the blurb for my choice on day #170.
Let me take you on a tangential journey, two years ago. It is autumn 2018, the dark nights were setting in and my life, like many other gamers the world over, was gripped by a palpable hype that comes only every few years; the release of a brand new AAA video game from Rockstar Games. Red Dead Redemption 2: Electric Buckaroo was due for release on 26th October 2018, after several lengthy delays and numerous reports of intense “crunch” development practices. The previous instalment is a bona fide classic, though my teenage attention had sufficiently waned and I had put off actually finishing the game until about a week before the new one came out.
In a bout of caving into such hype, I was absolutely having it large with other media depicting some form of that idea of an “old west”, where the first game heavy handedly delivered a facsimile of a Wild West in decline, a world collapsing and falling apart. It only made sense to drift towards country and folk music, and into that wistful space, as I was getting more and more excited about playing what I thought would be one of the best video games ever made, came Anna St. Louis.
I already knew a little about her, a California resident from the mid-west, and was familiar with First Songs, a collection of 8 tracks released in 2017 on Kevin Morby’s Mare label. I had been drawn in to a sublime sonic world, especially of the track “Fire”, and this contemporary country-tinged singer-songwriter, accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal production that created an evocative soundscape.
The follow-up debut album was announced in August, for an October 12th release, and I devoured the three singles that preceded it. In the circular, self-referential links that my mind was making between cultural moments, and amongst the morsels of video clips and release trailer breadcrumbs that Rockstar was dropping onto YouTube, I couldn’t help but feel this was a vogue for the old West, coming together between two cultural mediums I love.
I actually convinced myself at one point in October that some of her tracks were going to appear *in* Red Dead Redemption 2, and that her album release was timed slightly ahead to precipitate the interest this imagined appearance would generate. I even posted a tweet saying that her music *should* be in the game, thinking that *maybe* I could get some online brownie points by being slightly ahead of the curve. Of course, unfortunately for everyone, no Anna St. Louis songs were in the game.
Through those last months of 2018 I raced through the first book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, All The Pretty Horses (1992), I booted up my dust-filled and loudly whirring Xbox 360 to finish the stilted epilogue of Red Dead Redemption (2010), and I played the new game on PS4 obsessively up until Christmas (though like its predecessor I ended up taking a break before finishing it — attention spans!). All the whilst, I was mainlining If Only There Was A River (2018).
Despite not being included, to just think about what it was like to play that game, travelling across the computer generated vistas, I cannot help but remember the first few moments of the opening track “Water” and its enticingly conjured narrative, imposed upon the Red Dead protagonist Arthur Morgan riding horseback through American wilderness. I dug out some of my own captured gameplay footage on the PS4, and superimposing the song, it’s hard to deny that it just fits:
The album is full of tracks that drew my attention in different ways, becoming momentary favourites in turn. There’s the bass-heavy but stripped back and solemn “Freedom”, the upbeat finger-picking of “Daisy”, the spooky and atmospheric “The Bells”, plus the ephemeral title track, a perfect closing effort that offers a sense of hope.
I write all that to say Anna St. Louis’ debut album offers the perfect soundtrack to the idea of a fading western frontier, and that honestly it’s the last album I think I was truly obsessed with. These are songs dripping in atmosphere, delivering a timeless, yet modern, sound. I’m sure others have preceded St. Louis and created things in a similar vein but I’m honestly yet to find them, or anything that, to me, feels as reflective of the world today.
If you’re after any more bleak yet beautiful Americana involving the old West, I can also recommend Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt), a film so languid and moody that it’s noted for beginning in near silence with a lengthy section before there’s any dialogue. And when Amazon Prime malfunctioned and played without audio, I fully bought into the silent intro for a good 30 mins before realising it was not playing correctly.