JOHN MORELAND Oklahoma alt-country.
Michelle Crosby

"WHY'D I HAVE to go and get blessed with a curse," sings John Moreland. "I'm chasing death or glory, whichever comes first."

Those lines come from "Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore," a brilliant tunesmith's lament. The rest of Moreland's 2013 album In the Throes is filled with lyrical masterpieces as well, packed wall-to-wall with compact but compelling stories of love, loss, and a life spent dodging demons—on the road, on the page, and in prayer but not necessarily in church.

Moreland put out a handful of records before Throes, but it's on these 10 songs that the bearded Oklahoman's extraordinary songwriting skills come into sharp focus.

"I want [my songs] to feel distilled, I guess," he says on the phone from Austin, Texas. "I don't want there to be extra words. I want it to just be... efficient, I guess. I don't want there to be extra shit watering down the songs."

Mission accomplished. Alt-country bible No Depression said the album bares "a soul stripped down primarily to its essentials." American Songwriter gave Throes an honorable mention on its list of the best albums of 2013. Reviews of the record compared Moreland to songwriting giants such as Steve Earle and Nebraska-era Springsteen.

The attention is paying off; Moreland says he played to bigger crowds on a recent tour. A couple of his tunes showing up in the popular TV show Sons of Anarchy didn't hurt. It all adds up, says Moreland, who has been working toward making a living at music for years.

"When I was like 19, I went to one semester of community college just to make my mom happy and I realized that wasn't for me," he says. "So I dropped out [and] I was like, 'I have to try to play music as a career. I'm not gonna be happy unless I give that a shot.'"

The songs on Throes are "all pretty autobiographical," says Moreland. Sometimes two of his experiences are spliced together to make one song, and others have been embellished slightly. ("But not really," he adds.) Moreland recognizes the heartbroken thread that runs through the record, though he doesn't necessarily think it's excessively sad. Or uncommon.

"I played in Fort Worth a couple weeks ago and there was a guy there who had never heard me, and he came up and asked if I wrote all those songs," he says. "I said, 'Yeah, man.' And he was like, 'Wow, you've been through some shit, huh?'

"It's like, I don't know. Not really. I've been through the same stuff everybody else has," Moreland says. "I'm just probably way too hard on myself about a lot of it."