John Fullbright’s hardly the first songwriter to take God to task. XTC perhaps take the crown for the catchiest takedown with “Dear God” (“the wars you bring, the babes you drown / Those lost at sea and never found”), while Randy Newman brings his trademark jaundiced eye to “God’s Song” (“How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me / That’s why I love mankind”). Dylan famously tapped into the anger of the Old Testament Yahweh when he sang “The next time you see me comin’, you better run” on “Highway 61 Revisited”.
Fullbright throws his hat into the ring with “Gawd Above” and it’s a good one. Steeped in bluesy guitar and twisted church organ tones that sound like they’re coming from just this side of brimstone, Fullbright paints a picture of a God who rigged the game from the beginning and who can’t help grin at the idea of vengefully locking his “doubting children away forever.” You can’t tell who’s angrier: Fullbright or the wrathful God he portrays. It’s a heck of a way to kick off his debut album, and a song that’s rightfully getting him some attention.
That intersection with religion is all over From the Ground Up, so “Gawd Above” represents something more than just a doubter’s hymn. Even on a straightforward (and less wrath-tempting) song like “Jericho”, Fullbright uses the metaphor of Jericho’s walls falling to describe the end of self-searching wanderlust. Then there’s “Satan and St. Paul”, which envisions both a spiritual and physical crossroads. The record might arguably become a little more nuanced and wide-ranging after “Gawd Above”, but it doesn’t abandon the fertile lyrical inspiration that first song finds in Biblical themes.
Born and raised in Woody Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, Fullbright is only 24 years old. A veteran of the festival circuit since he was a teenager, he’s developed not only his own lyrical niche, but also several ways to present his songs. In a song like “Gawd Above” or “Satan and St. Paul”, he adopts a slightly slurred vocal delivery reminiscent of James McMurtry or Todd Snider. On “Nowhere to Be Found” and “I Only Pray at Night”, he sounds closer to Rufus Wainwright (with interesting and dramatic chord changes to match). It’s as if Fullbright’s found a way to give fresh voice to the old cliche of Saturday night sinning/Sunday morning salvation.
It’s no surprise that a wave of hype accompanies Fullbright. His Oklahoma origins and his lyrical sophistication immediately put you in mind of other Southwestern songwriters like Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark. It’s obviously too early to tell where Fullbright will end up in the ranks of dusty songsmiths, but it’s understandable that this debut is making a splash. There’s also the diversity of Fullbright’s sound to consider when you hear a song like “Fat Man”, which sounds like equal parts Randy Newman and Kurt Weill (and is inspired by a Bert Lockwood poem). This is an intriguing first record.