Stephen Kellogg and his Sixers have long been among the hardest-working album rockers touring the small clubs across America. Kellogg has been making rootsy Americana-tinged rock since the mid-‘90s, but he finally found his artistic zenith when he formed the Sixers in 2003. Through seven years and three albums, critics ranging far and wide from the band’s Boston base have been placing the Sixers on the verge of a national breakthrough. Now, with Gift Horse, the band seems poised to finally make good on that promise. Featuring some of Kellogg’s strongest melodies and most introspective lyrics yet, the album stands as the best album yet from an artist who seems not to know the meaning of second best.
I’ve interviewed Kellogg twice in the last decade, and he’s always proven to be as painfully aware of his own faults as well as the facts of life in the modern-day music industry. “To tell the truth, at this point in my career I don’t care about most interviews I do,” he told me in a 2008 interview for Stereo Subversion. “There’s no magazine out there that can wave a magic wand and suddenly make or break my career.” Instead, he’s chosen to focus on the fans who brought him the opportunity to build a career through music. He’s toured with the Sixers incessantly, often more than 250 shows a year for close to a decade. And he’s earned a reputation for putting on a live performance that shifts the music like a chameleon, making the Sixers a band you have to see more than once to get the full experience.
Those fans who have stuck by the band are the reason Gift Horse exists in the first place. There’s the old saying, he says, about not looking a gift horse in the mouth. When you can have a career in this economy, why not put critics aside and simply make music for the fans who brought you here? There’s a heady sense of nostalgia weighing upon the proceedings, but taking the long view back has given Kellogg the chance to put his career in perspective, and the result is hands-down his best album since Glassjaw Boxer, if not of his career proper.
“Gravity” opens the album with a touch of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” floating in the background of the arrangement, and the song doesn’t overload our ears lyrically as much as Kellogg has been prone to do in the past. That allows the song to become the most singable melody he’s recorded in years. “I’ve got soul / my mama says so”, he sings, before letting loose on the insanely catchy chorus. “Gravity / you’re knocking me out / you’re shaking me up ‘til I twist and I shout / I love it right here with my feet on the ground”. It’s a song of celebration: “Your fear of the future is your greatest mistake”, he sings, memorializing the sound of the crowd at a show as his strongest sense-memory.
“1993” is Mellencamp for a new generation, echoing “Authority Song” in its melody as Kellogg looks back on his teen years. “I fell in love back in 1993 / I fell in love and I’m never going back to sleep”, he sings, referencing his first love, the one that got away while he was falling asleep to MTV. It may be the album’s only true misstep, simply because it apes the Mellencamp melody too overtly, making it impossible for the song to stand completely on its own. But the sense of nostalgic fun hangs over the song and makes it listenable despite its faults.
The album’s stunning centerpiece, however, is “Song for Lovers”, which is something of an aural sister song to “Lonely In Columbus” from The Bear. The song features two lovers thinking about their own mortality, juxtaposed with the fact that Kellogg’s first-person protagonist claims to be an atheist who still believes there’s a life beyond this Earthly realm. “I don’t believe in Jesus as anything but a man / I worry that religion is doing less good than bad / and I know that makes a lot of good people mad”, he sings. But he goes on to suggest that the heart knows the soul lets go and has to go somewhere more meaningful than the ether. The song features ethereal, haunting background vocals on the chorus as Kellogg sings “I don’t know!” with reckless abandon. It’s the thinking-man’s introspection that fans of Kellogg know they can’t find anywhere else. Certainly there’s no one else out there who would be able to tackle such weighty thoughts in a song which remains infinitely catchy and singable while making you think about your own mortality and beliefs.
The overwhelming sense once gets from Gift Horse is that Kellogg is a man who respects the intelligence of his fans and wants to continue to reward them with amazing music, since without them he’d have nothing. As usual, this album deserves to be his breakthrough effort, the album that makes Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers a household name. This is an album which builds and builds with solid, often stunning, works of tuneful pop. I have the sense that for once he may finally get what he truly deserves. Gift Horse is one of the top five albums of the year hands down, and it proves Stephen Kellogg remains singularly on top of his creative game. I can’t think of anything more you could ask from an artist.
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