Calling Couples in Trouble a “left-turn” in the career of Robbie Fulks would be accurate, but not particularly useful, as his entire discography is comprised of left-turns. One can make a few connections—the irreverently reverent country of 1996’s Country Love Songs got a sequel in the following year’s South Mouth, and the sparse, traditional bluegrass-folk of 2013’s later-career highlight Gone Away Backward led to Fulks probing the same influences three years later with Upland Stories—but these are the exceptions to an oeuvre containing, among others, a record of sea-shanties recorded in Scotland with the Mekons, a vinyl-only reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s Street Legal, and a collaborative album with Linda Gail Lewis. Still, Couples in Trouble is a notable mile marker in Fulks’ career, in that it wasn’t a country album like his first two records, nor was it a “country album” like 1998’s Let’s Kill Saturday Night, Fulks’ Geffen-released (and Geffen-botched) roots-power-pop shot at the mainstream.
The sources that didn’t stick to the catchall “alt-country” genre signifier deemed Couples in Trouble a “pop album”, and it is—in terms of hooks, it at the very least matches Let’s Kill Saturday Night. Couples in Trouble is also palpably dark album. The aforementioned few-and-far-between press quotes I could find for it online acknowledge it as a concept record about, well, what its title suggests it’s about. In every song, it feels like something bad has either happened, is happening, or is about to happen to the characters appearing therein. It was Fulks’ formal follow-up to the ill-fated Let’s Kill Saturday Night, and the focus on pop songcraft is still here, but this time it comes on Fulks’ own terms entirely, unable to be constrained by genre. In a (more just) universe where Let’s Kill Saturday Night ended up as Fulks’ Nevermind, Couples in Trouble would’ve been the In Utero—a sonic expansion that’s more difficult to swallow whole, but still contains much to remind one why they liked Fulks in the first place. Instead, however, the album was released in August 2001 to little fanfare through something called “Boondoggle Records” (which I believe means Fulks released it on his own), assisted in distribution in some capacity by Fulks’ most frequent label partner, Bloodshot Records.
The eerie opener “In Bristol Town One Bright Day” (written by Fulks, but originally recorded two years earlier by Sally Timms) is Fulks’ best approximation of an Appalachian folk song, although it’s so understated that it feels like the record really starts with the back-to-back punches of “Anything for Love” and “Dancing on the Ashes”. I’ve always grouped these two songs together in my head, although I’m not entirely sure why—the former is a slow-builder while the latter comes charging out of the gate. Both tracks mostly follow pop/rock structures musically, but contain at least one lightning-strike-illuminating-a-shadowy-figure moment. “Anything for Love” explodes midway through the song, with Fulks roaring “Stop talking about it!” before what sounds like a record skip attempts to move the track forward from that uncomfortable curtain peek. “Dancing on the Ashes”, a driving country-rock instrumental, is one of the most obvious callbacks to Let’s Kill Saturday Night, but this war-haunted track too has a moment where the guitars drop out and Fulks is accompanied by an alarm clock and clamoring strings, and the lyrics are appropriately spine-chilling.
In a way that reminds me of the Mountain Goats’ “Going to” series of songs, thematically-similar stories of people who travel to new cities and countries in the belief that it can solve their deep-set issues, Couples in Trouble has a traveling motif that recurs throughout the dozen songs. Some of these road sketches are fairly ominous, like the specter of “In Bristol Town One Bright Day” and the getaway car from god-knows-what in the smoky noir of “Real Money”, while the two-lane in “The Grip of Our Love” is something of a time-freezing Mobius strip and “She Needs You Now” feels like pure, uneasy escapism. In “Brenda’s New Stepfather”, it’s a lifeboat cruelly dangled in front of and denied to the song’s addressee. Fulks’ early work relied heavily on subtly playing within country music’s tropes to create funhouse mirror mutations, like in the haunting “Barely Human” and the over-the-top corn-pone character sketch of “Papa Was a Steel-Headed Man”. Even at his farthest from his country roots thus far, the futile, beckoning allure of “the road” remains as a reminder of his skill in this arena of songwriting.
The second half of the album contains Couples in Trouble’s most towering achievements, but also its toughest moments. The record’s climax, the stunning, cinematic “Banks of the Marianne” is followed by three minutes of ambient noise and then the deconstruction that is “The Grip of Our Love”. The album’s “single”, meanwhile, the self-effacing pop-rocker “Mad at a Girl”, precedes “Brenda’s New Stepfather”, one of the ugliest songs ever written. Fulks spends the entirety of “Stepfather” inhabiting the theatrical horror of the titular monster through a particularly harrowing tale of child abuse. Despite years of sitting with this song and coming to believe that Fulks executes it as well as anyone possibly could’ve, I remain ambivalent towards pop music as a vehicle for this kind of exploration—but I also caution against getting too caught up in debating the merits of a (presumably) fictional story in a way that can quickly become an exhausting but ultimately insulating and meaningless distraction from the buried well of real-world horrors into which the song taps.
“Love’s got to be limitless if love is to survive / But even love’s got to stop somewhere short of suicide,” roars the long-suffering, cuckolded main character in “I’ve Got to Tell Myself the Truth”, attempting to set a last-ditch boundary with a show-stopping vocal turn from Fulks. Couples in Trouble ends, however, without even that sliver of stability. The shit-eating grin of “Mad at a Girl”, the crowd-pleasing acoustic strumming of “Banks of the Marianne”, and the second-person narrative of “She Needs You Now” all converge in album closer “Never Could”, which functions as a jauntily-depressing end credits roll and a bit of an album autopsy of sorts. It’s a reminder of the human personality defect that’s at the root of so much of the mess depicted in the album’s previous eleven songs. “Love’s cruel, haven’t you heard? It gets them all in the end,” Fulks informs the hopeless, recently-abandoned subject.
Couples in Trouble is not a guiding philosophy of an album. The ever-expanding songbook of Robbie Fulks is not that of a nihilistic misanthrope, at least not to the degree that Couples in Trouble might suggest. What the album is, however, is a record that’s there for you (you, specifically, you sad bastard) whenever you need it to be. Like the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee, another folk-adjacent fictional tale of relationship discord, Couples in Trouble is an album that grasps the value of telling stories that examine drama between characters in an almost literary sense. Robbie Fulks never made an album quite like Couples in Trouble again, and it remains somewhat of an enigma in his discography twenty years later. Even as a solitary gravel offshoot from the most tumultuous time in Fulks’ career, however, it remains a richly fascinating road to go down.