Sunday, March 6, 2016

John Fullbright - Songs

About a month ago, American Songwriter gave a rave review to Songs, the sophomore album from Oklahoma troubadour, John Fullbright. In the review, Lynne Margolis wrote that Songs had the potential to become a classic along the lines of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, both albums that are viewed today as the seminal works of almost universally respected singer/songwriters. Whether that bold claim will prove to be accurate over time is hard to say: after all, this brand of folk music doesn’t have the same critical clout these days that it once did. However, the fact that Songs has quickly become the most acclaimed album of the year in songwriting circles—similarly to how Jason Isbell’s Southeastern earned that title last summer—proves that perhaps the 26-year-old Fullbright has an ace up his sleeve. He might never become a superstar, but in the eyes of his fans, he will always be one of the best of his generation.

Whether or not you’ve heard Fullbright’s brand of brutally honest, slow-burn Americana before this record, there is little doubt that Songs will convert you into a believer of the bold “best of his generation” claims. Right from the moment “Happy” crackles through the speakers at the start of the disc, a few things become immediately the clear. The first is that Fullbright’s world-weary baritone is one of the great instruments of modern folk. His low notes boom with rich, innate resonance in a way that country music hasn’t heard since Johnny Cash, as on the ragged, stripped down poetry of “Keeping Hope Alive,” or the rollicking Americana of “Never Cry Again.” Fullbright’s higher range might be even better though, communicating worlds of soulful feeling on album highlights like “When You’re Here” and the masterful “High Road”—the latter of which might be the year’s best song. From start to finish, Songs is carried largely by Fullbright’s ability to convey so much with his voice. In that regard, too, he’s an awful lot like Isbell.

If Fullbright’s voice sets him apart from his contemporaries in the folk music scene, though, then it’s his lyrics that really put him in the running for “best of his generation”—the second thing you will probably realize as “Happy” starts to play. As you might expect from an album with a title as frank and to-the-point as Songs, this record is all about poetic storytelling. Perhaps the best example, again, is “High Road,” an epic narrative ballad that tells the tale of Susie and Jack, a young star-crossed couple eager to fight the odds and try their hand at building a life together—despite protests from their parents. When Jack buys a tractor and takes up a career as a farmer, though, it’s easy to see that the love story will somehow end in tragedy.

One day, Jack tries to finish plowing the field before a storm breaks. When the rain comes roaring in, though, the ground caves in beneath him and Jack ends up pinned and impaled beneath the tractor. It’s a grisly narrative, and Fullbright doesn’t shy away from the gory details (“Susie ran out through the rainstorm, threw her arms around her true love/Her tears were lost in the water, and mixed in a puddle of blood,” he sings at the song’s climax), but Fullbright’s sad and tired vocal delivery derives vivid beauty from the blood and heartbreak. He may not have the wry, rapidfire wordplay of Bob Dylan, or the sweeping musical textures of Bruce Springsteen, but Fullbright’s shot at a sprawling story song works because, like Springsteen, he becomes his characters. He may be telling many of these stories from a third-person point of view, but when he sings the key lines of “High Road” (“Jack told his wife not to worry, he said ‘The soft ground has broken my fall’/He told her he’d love her forever, then he didn’t say nothing at all”) the blistering agony in his voice is enough to convince you that he’s singing this song with a 5,000-pound tractor pinning him to the ground. By the time the strains of “Loch Lomond” drift through the proceedings, played on piano instead of in their more usual bagpipe arrangement, “High Road” has already ascended to “classic” status.

My high school literature teacher once said that few things are more symbolic in novels or poetry than rain, and Songs is drenched in it. From the turn of the weather that brings about Jack’s death in “High Road” to the delicate piano tinkle of “She Knows,” rain is a major theme throughout this record. Appropriately then, Songs will sound best on days where clouds fill the sky and downpours rage outside. Take the B3-fueled swirl of “The One Who Lives Too Far,” where Fullbright ends up “feeling cold and naked” and “standing in the rain” after a magical young love gets broken down by a world too keen on stacking the deck against it. “She Knows” is even better, with a lovely second verse that goes, “She knows a thing or two about rain, she calls it holy water/It rained the day she was born, oh how her mama cried/The rain I’ve felt with her/I swear it was electrified.” It’s a baptism of a verse, and it’s not the only time on Songs where Fullbright seems to be going gospel. The flawless “All That You Know” is positively hymn-like in composition, with short four-line stanzas and a sparse arpeggiated Wurlitzer accompaniment that would sound every bit as at home in a church service as it does right here, while the closing track, “Very First Time,” feels similarly traditional in its approach.

But it’s a testament to Fullbright’s talent that he can pack Songs with such recurring themes and still have room to make striking observations about many other subjects. On the gorgeous “When You’re Here,” he tackles loneliness with profundity not often found in songs shorter than four minutes (“As for lonely, I can show you how to live a life alone/All it takes is getting used to getting lost”); during “Write a Song,” Fullbright goes meta as he describes his creative process (“Think a thought about the very thought you think/Hold a pen and write a line about the ink); and on “Until You Were Gone,” he discusses the ironic and infuriating truth that the heart never knows what it wants until what it wants walks out the door (“I didn’t know about silence until you were gone/The last show’s over, the curtain is drawn”). Throughout, each song seems somehow more beautiful than the last, building in unhurried and comforting fashion to the penultimate climax of “High Road.”

The end result is an album for people who love albums. In that case, the title becomes misleading. This disc is so much more than just a set of songs: it’s a treatise on the ups and downs of life, penned by a guy who is as good at spinning those ups and downs into concise and colorful songwriting as anyone making music today. Fullbright’s first record, From the Ground Up, scored a surprise Grammy nomination in the Americana category two years ago, but don’t be surprised when Songs starts topping EOTY lists in December. Because American Songwriter was right: this album is a classic in the making, and it deserves to be hailed as such.

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