Raised in South Berwick, Maine, and residing in Austin, Texas, is no one’s idea of a music-industry insider. He writes and sings songs primarily about working-class people and romantics both hopeful and hopeless. That said, it’s also not difficult to hear another element of the fortysomething Cleaves’ past: He was an English and philosophy major at Tufts, and his lyrics are underpinned by both a fine sense of meter and moral perspicacity. You can hear the former — the clever rhymes and forward narrative momentum — in a jaunty song such as “Texas Love Song.”
The other side of Cleaves’ music is his interest in delineating what it’s like to live a hardscrabble existence without too much hope of rising above one’s station in life. This tends to lead Cleaves back to his Maine childhood, where the economy and the climate are frequently difficult, and which can summon up vivid images for him. One of the best of these is “Welding Burns,” in which the narrator recalls the look of his father’s hands and the trapped feeling the older man felt in the work he was bound to do.