Micah Hinson has lived a lot of life in a short time. He’s poured every feeling of heartbreak, loss, and isolation into the 13 songs on his debut record, providing plenty of that holy trinity of confessional singer/songwriting in spades. The back-story goes like this: Hinson and his family move to Abilene, Texas, where Hinson becomes a regular in the local music scene. In comes a Vogue cover model and widow of a notable local rock star who sweeps Hinson off his feet and into a world of prescription drugs. It’s not long before Hinson is caught forging prescriptions for his “muse”, who soon becomes his “black widow”. Hinson ends up in county jail and loses car, home, family, money, instruments, and recording equipment. At age 19, Hinson finds himself homeless and broke, sleeping on friends’ floors and barely getting by, before deciding to declare bankruptcy. To keep his head above water he secures a telemarketing job and moves into a motel. Despite—or perhaps because of—all this, Hinson still managed to write about 30 songs on borrowed instruments and equipment during this period. In 2003, Hinson got together with the Earlies, friends from his Texas days, to put some of those 30 songs written during his lost period to tape. The result is his debut album, And the Gospel of Progress
There’s always a caution sign with highly confessional albums. If poorly executed, a certain degree of pity is engendered in the listener. Pity, as with sports, is not an emotion that goes well with music. A well-written song, if I may take a moment to state the obvious (and no one’s ever stopped me before), asks the reader to inhabit the songwriter’s state of mind, to become him or her for 3 or 4 minutes. If you take my little hypothesis at face value then you probably agree that a well-done break-up album is one of the great listening pleasures. Think about Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard Buckner’s Devotion and Doubt, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and how they make you feel. Those records vary from Joni Mitchell’s “emotionally transparent” songwriting, to the cloaked in riddle lyrics of Dylan, to the creation of a personal vocabulary unique to Buckner’s songs. Each is unique; each voice (lyrically and vocally) is diverse within the context of the album. This is heady stuff, and a high bar to aspire to. Hinson deserves some accolades just for trying to put his intensely personal experiences out there for us to hear. If nothing else, And the Gospel of Progress is a brave record.
It must sound like I’m setting Hinson up for the big “but”. You know, great songs, BUT compared to what’s gone before or, a well meaning record, BUT ultimately falling short of the lofty goal to which he aspires or, a good go, BUT not quite there. Well, I suppose I am to a certain degree. And the Gospel of Progress is a fine album. There are tremendously affecting songs here. “Don’t You Forget (Parts One and Two)” is as touching and well-written a song as you’re likely to hear this year. Hinson has a gruff, weathered voice that’s not traditionally beautiful, but makes him sound much older than he is, and he uses that to his full advantage. When he sings a line like, “There are things I’ve said, that don’t mean a thing anyway”, Hinson is able to imbue the simple statement with both a world weariness and the youthfully foolish belief that something said could ever be taken back once it’s reached the right (or wrong) ears. But there’s a certain unwavering tone to this album that becomes oppressive at times. Part of it is the subject matter and part of it is Hinson’s voice, which is neither traditionally beautiful nor as thick with character as, say, a Tom Waits. At other times, it’s Hinson’s lyrics that sink his songs. While “At Last, Our Promises” is musically engaging, it’s hard not to squirm in your seat a bit when Hinson repeats ad nauseam “It’s all my fault”.
Musically, Hinson plays gently strummed ballads. His acoustic guitar is at the heart of every song. But in deciding to record with the Earlies, the songs become fleshed out with ringing keyboards, strings, lap steel, accordion, and some beautiful harmonies. The additional instrumentation is often very successful, as in the building swirl of psychedelic drone in “At Last, Our Promises”. Yet some of the best songs remain the most simple. The lovely duet “I Still Remember” is two voices and Hinson’s guitar until the final minute, when the song opens up with a percussive cello line and drums. The first half of that song is so affecting simply because Hinson’s lyrics are often best served when minimally adorned.
Hinson is essentially celebrating, accusing, and cursing his muse all within the course of And the Gospel of Progress‘s 13 songs. It’s possible that 13 songs are too much for the sort of vision that Hinson is chasing, but it’s a fine heartfelt effort that rewards as richly as it disappoints.