“Singer-songwriter” is the laziest of labels. Don’t tell the other critics out there that I’m letting you in on that one. After all, isn’t virtually every artist a singer-songwriter? Doesn’t every band have at least one? Still, we know what it usually means: someone with an acoustic guitar, singing songs about love and loss, with varying results. In that sense, yes, Doug Paisley fits the singer-songwriter bill. But, please, don’t let the label limit the impact of his second LP, Constant Companion. It’s a record of subtle beauty, of a soft ache, the kind that seeps right into you and, before you know it, it’s settled deeper than you’d have thought possible upon the first spin.
Paisley’s compositions are of the tried-and-true sort, strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitar, supplemented by light organ drones, simple bass grooves, and a backbone of kick drum and brushed snare. And, of course, his wonderful voice. Paisley’s not a showy vocalist by any means, but he imbues each syllable with an effortless weight. If it’s a cliché to call a singer-songwriter “heartfelt”, well, fine. But here we have it. Paisley’s the kind of performer who can sell a line like, “Don’t make me wait / If you feel your love dying / Just turn away” and make the words seem at once universal and intensely personal. The songwriting here, spare and confident, never insists upon its profundity. Rather, listening to Constant Companion gives one the impression of having run across a private treasure, a dusty LP in a bin tucked away at a country yard sale.
Yet Paisley’s not quite undiscovered. Garth Hudson of The Band lends his hands to the organ here, and Leslie Feist provides vocals on two tracks. It’s easy to see why those artists believe in Paisley’s work enough to offer their talents. Songs like “End of the Day”, “What I Saw”, and “No One But You” were meant as much for early summer drives as they were for dark rain-ridden afternoons. When Paisley sings, “Gonna get by / Gonna get through / When the well runs dry / I’m gonna crawl to you”, you know what he’s saying, and it sounds new, even if you think you may have heard something similar somewhere before.
That may be the greatest accomplishment of Constant Companion: sounding at once fresh and rooted in years of well-mined tradition. Paisley brings a quiet energy to these songs, even though most of them pass through your speakers with little more than a hush. He may not bring the rafters down with volume, but he’ll find his own way, mark his words.