Thieves is full of stories: stories about people who are unable to rise to the occasion of their life, who are helpless in the face of a world that doesn’t play by their rules. There’s Fortunado, the small-time hustler who “thought he’d be braver,” that is until he faces his own capacity for betrayal. Or the stooge of “Fake Diamonds, False Powers,” unrewarded for his loyalty and made violent by his affection.
According to Alex Dupree, these are stories about the Trump years, a span which coincided with his own attempt to rebuild a life after divorce. It was a time for the painful ending of illusions, about himself and about the country. Dupree was living between artist residencies, sublets, and storage units along I-10, and long hours spent on the highway soon found a form in the long lines of traditional folk ballads. Slowly, very slowly, new songs began to emerge:
We took what we could carry when the holy city fell.
The road across the prairie was curving like a shell.
I had to try and sell my memory to strangers.
The characters that populate Thieves are plucked from a wide variety of historical and fantastical sources, but in Dupree’s voice they tell the story of a single self and, taken together, feel deeply confessional. There’s reference to works like The King and the Corpse, Kagemusha, and Borges here, an idiosyncratic folklore of identity and rebirth.
Producer and engineer Michael Krassner (Califone, Simon Joyner, Boxhead Ensemble) heard Alex Dupree perform at a house show with Simon Joyner around this time, in late 2019. He immediately registered the cinematic quality of the new songs and offered to record and arrange them. Fast forward to March 2021: one election, one insurrection, and two vaccines later: Krassner and Dupree were in a car together, driving to Los Angeles to make a record.
Thieves features a cast of LA musicians, including Max Knouse, Aaron Stern, Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, Mavis Staples), Buck Meek (Big Thief), and Tiffanie Lanmon (Mirror Travel), alongside regular Dupree collaborators Aisha Burns and Bill McCullough (Knife in the Water). Michael Krassner’s experience arranging for film and his deep attention to songcraft set a perfect stage for Dupree’s lyric storytelling. Old-Hollywood string crescendos and delicate acoustic phrases pass in and out of focus behind the vocals, a lush backdrop for the songs’ stark dialogue.
Coulda shown you a good time, she said. But I doubt it.
I lost my pride, and I can’t see a damn thing without it.
I want you or I don’t want nothing.
Dupree got his musical start in Austin, Texas, and his voice still has some Heartworn Highways-era color to it. In the mid 00s, he founded the Trapdoor Band, an improvisatory folk group and vehicle for his lyric-driven songwriting, before switching to the Idyl moniker in 2009.
Dupree moved to California to focus on poetry, studying and teaching at UC Irvine, with songwriting never far from his mind. He continued to hone his craft writing country songs for both the LA band Mister Paradise and a duet project called Dawn & Dupree (with Iva Dawn of
They/Live). Despite a deep love for country music, Dupree’s songs never quite settled in that category, absorbing additional influences from the likes of Laurie
Anderson, Arthur Russell, Bjork, and John Cale.
The story of Thieves is the story of starting over. It’s a sturdy songwriter’s album with heady, heavy folk and country flourishes. Bill Callahan meets Willie Nelson. Or Harry Smith meets Barry Hannah. It’s about coming to terms with the uncanny patterns of your life, the strange repetitions you can’t escape.
The longed-for snow and the memory of snow,
they fall together.
I’m tumbling down St. Lawrence Way,
been coming here forever.