Widespread Panic has never been a chart threat. From its beginning nearly a quarter century ago (2011 marks the band’s silver anniversary), the Athens, Ga., sextet has made good albums purchased by a cult-numbered few which has somehow translated into great shows attended by more voluminous Jam audiences. In theory, the Panic’s new album, Dirty Side Down, shouldn’t be the one to break the mold, and yet the band’s 11th album just happens to have notched the best first week chart position in their long recording history.
So does that make Dirty Side Down the best album in their catalog? Maybe so and maybe no.
The opening track on Dirty Side Down is a fair example of the album’s structure. “Saint Ex” starts off with a gorgeous acoustic guitar introduction, a melodic bit of beautiful Pop melancholy that would have been at home on a Peter Frampton or Todd Rundgren album three decades ago, which transitions into an electric Jazz run that sounds like it was lifted from Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow. Just as quickly, the Panic chugs into a polyrhythmic Southern Rock/Prog swagger that still manages to exude the Jazz glow it had previously sparked. This all occurs in the first minute and a half of the song; by its conclusion nearly six minutes later, the acoustic intro serves as its coda, and “Saint Ex” comes to a close full circle from where it began, a fascinatingly diverse romp through the Panic’s big book of sonic possibilities.
Immediately on its heels comes “North,” a more typical Panic boogie workout Jam on which you can definitely hear them stretching into a 10-plus minute excursion in front of an ecstatic audience. Then comes the dark one-two punch of the moodily optimistic title track, which John Bell sings in an approximation of Leo Kottke and the Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts, and the gorgeously melancholic “This Cruel Thing,” written by longtime Panic collaborator Vic Chesnutt, who did a couple of albums with the Panic under the band name Brute. The song’s weary lyrical worldview and atmospheric Jimmy Webb-like shimmer is made all the more poignant by the fact that Chesnutt took his own life on Christmas Day last year; try to remain unmoved as all of the Panic’s vocalists wail the song’s refrain, “When this cruel thing is over,” up to the song’s haunting final note.
Thankfully, the Panic lighten the mood ever so slightly on the Blues boogie of “Visiting Day,” the scuffed Country/Pop of “Clinic Cynic” and the ominous slink of “Shut Up and Drive.” Dirty Side Down is certainly one of Widespread Panic’s darker and more atmospheric albums to date, and one of the band’s most broadly diverse from a stylistic perspective.