Jon McLaughlin’s Indiana is not quite the blue-collar strugglesville audiences have become familiar with over four decades worth of work from the Hoosier State’s favorite musical son, first name also John, last initial also M. But like the collection of small Heartland towns Mellencamp often describes, it is still a place where wide-eyed dreamers dwell, even if they be of the more polished, pop music loving type.
The piano-driven arrangements of McLaughlin’s debut are likely to resonate with fans of recent artists like Gavin DeGraw, as well as ‘90s success Joshua Kadison, whose earnest, soulful sound McLaughlin definitely recalls. The positive, affirming messages which drive the album’s poetry will also lend aid to McLaughlin’s ability to enjoy mass appeal in innocuous fashion. In fact, to call a spade what it is, McLaughlin’s songs can sometimes be of the platitude-laden, “everything will be alright” variety. Actually, this judgment isn’t far off as McLaughlin’s most clichéd phrasing, found on “Just Give It Time” include the lyrics “Just give it time / It’s gonna get better / Now is not forever at all / Just give it time / Everything changes / Tomorrow comes, today will be gone / Everything’s gonna be alright.” Yet, as a performer, McLaughlin projects such a pleasant, honest vibe (recalling the nice guy pop of guitar-based songwriters like Edwin McCain and Shawn Mullins) that even the most cynical listener will be willing to extend him a little grace.
When McLaughlin’s personality shines through his music, no matter how familiar the sentiment, he succeeds. On Indiana, this success takes two distinct, yet interconnected shapes. As a young songwriter, McLaughlin already proves adept at crafting engaging material with upbeat tempos, huge hooks and a wealth of charisma. Stellar cases of achieving this magnetic blend include “Industry”, in which McLaughlin seems to sincerely seek the type of direction and wisdom that would keep him from being swept up by any newfound celebrity, and single “Beautiful Disaster”, a track which is absolutely everything a single should be. With its remarkably winning chorus and sensitive lyrical bent, the track suggests McLaughlin has a mix of both promise and ability.
Indiana also contains several ballads, which when stripped of the immaculate production values that appear on other tracks, make the moment seem a special one between McLaughlin and the listener, a time for honest communication between souls. On the title track, for example, McLaughlin beautifully conveys the yearning of a small-town kid who is trying to display bravery in the face of heartbreak: “But I love the miles between me and the city / Where I quietly imagine every street / And I’m glad I’m only picturing the moment / I’m glad she never fell in love with me.” As the track progresses, McLaughlin’s narrator draws a parallel between his unrequited romance and the possibility of realizing his dreams, singing, “I wonder how it feels to be famous / But wonder is as far as I will go / ‘Cause I’d probably lose myself in all the pictures / And end up being someone I don’t know / So it’s probably best I stay in Indiana / Just dreaming of the world as it should be / Where everyday is a battle to convince myself / That I’m glad she never fell in love with me.” This is the song of every romantic who has stared out a window with the audacity to think big, and McLaughlin would do well, throughout his career, to never lose sight of the emotion and humility he so ably expresses.
For all of its moments of quality, occasionally, the record experiences a few slips and falls. “Amelia’s Missing” is a song that struggles to come out from under the weight of awkward, forced metaphors. McLaughlin opens the track, “I can’t find Crazy Horse, can’t find Hoffa / And Amelia’s missing somewhere out at sea… / ...“I can’t find my watch, can’t find my wallet / so how the hell am I supposed to find / The one that I love ...” Tracks like “For You From Me” and “Until You Got Love” also seem just a bit much; the former is a pedestrian piece of up-tempo pop, a little too sweet for its own good, while the latter, though musically interesting, visits tired lyrical territory.
With the album containing 13 tracks and clocking in at just under an hour, even the most brisk, well-edited four minutes of radio readiness gets a bit old by record’s end. Had McLaughlin and producers Jamie Houston and Greg Wells trimmed a track or two from the album, the record might have packed a more immediate punch, instead allowing some of its less memorable pieces to blend together into one uniform-sounding experience. Fortunately for McLaughlin, Indiana is more hits than misses. Loaded with personality and a capacity for writing first-rate melodies, Jon McLaughlin fits well the part he plays in his songs, the big-eyed idealist with the whole world stretched out before him. Should McLaughlin continue to build on the foundation he has set with this album, he’ll be able to communicate his dreams and the dreams of others in his songs for some time to come.