Under Cold Blue Stars is a soulful country-rock album that tells the story of a 1950s Midwestern family who inherit a farm in the South. Over the course of the album's 11 songs, Rouse sings about the success and failure, love and heartbreak experienced by the family members and friends. His sound, gender-neutral swooning folk dressed in quirky analog jazz keyboards, would fit nicely on a mix tape alongside The Smiths and Nick Drake.
Beginning with funeral sounds (where his last album, Home, left off), Rouse launches into "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure," a poppy love song from an insecure singer who gilds his love to feel better about himself. The endless repetition of the phrase "Always been the one to follow you" only reinforces his obsessive sincerity and it urges the listener to question the motives of the singer's declarations.
"Miracles" describes holy-shit amazement, most likely the reaction to childbirth. You still wonder if you should trust the singer; contrasted with the agonizing complexities surrounding the loneliness in other songs, his overwhelming happiness here comes across as too simple.
"Christmas With Jesus" portrays religion at odds with technology in this case, a radio broadcast that leaves even the soul-searcher wary. The bass-heavy title track, "Under Cold Blue Stars," shows a repressed small-town dreamer wading in potential, but drowning in reality. "Ugly Stories" is Rouse's most straightforward kiss-off to date, its Dylanesque cynicism ("Believe in your doubts, 'cause I found out you can never trust in anyone") revealing an emotionally battered singer struggling to accept unquestionable infidelity. In contrast, "Feelin' No Pain" is a slap on the steering wheel on a highway drive across America. It would be a hot summertime single all over the radio in an ideal world. Like "Miracles," it's more simple pleasure than guilty one.
To bring the house down, "Summer Kitchen Ballad" is a seriously downbeat song in which Rouse sings "It's a grey world." The dramatics of the line "Sat in the kitchen with an asthma cigarette" might seem comical at first, but once Rouse starts the little-boy whine, there's nothing funny about it. You can only pray he will close the album optimistically.
Looking to the emotional core that connects people beneath the majestic night sky, "The Whole Night Through" grants perspective and resolution. But while the song helps override our fears of the unknown through simple-minded, age-old hopefulness, the album as a whole is like a telling documentary that stresses the famine over the feast. Thankfully, Rouse does end this album with optimism. "Because when you start to doubt, somehow it all works out...," he sings. "The line becomes the truth...what we need right now is a place to just lay down...and dream the whole night through."