On The Very Last Day Parker Millsap pours intensity into his songs, regardless of whether he’s rocking out with his band, quietly accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, or playing the blues as slow as molasses. Stylistically, Millsap embraces the same sort of anything goes Americana as genre stalwarts like Jason Isbell or the Lone Bellow. The Very Last Day features strong songwriting, insightful lyrics, and successful dabbling in several different musical styles. But his intensity may be the quality that sets him apart.
Opener “Hades Pleads” displays this with its hard-hitting country-rock arrangement. Bluesy acoustic slide guitar is buttressed by chunky electric guitar and down and dirty fiddling from Daniel Foulks. Lyrically the song follows its title, as the titular Greek god attempts to convince a woman he’s obsessed with to follow him down to hell. It’s a rollicking way to start the album, and “Pining”, the jaunty second song, provides contrast without sacrificing energy. The acoustic and chunky electric guitars remain, but Millsap swaps the fiddle for a boogie-woogie piano, giving the song a much more bouncy feel. “Pining” is also helped by its big, bright sing along chorus as Millsap croons “The silver lining / Baby it’s blinding / ‘Cause I’m pining / For you”.
The harrowing “Heaven Sent” finds Millsap taking on the role of a conflicted young gay man attempting to have a conversation with his preacher father. “You say that it’s a sin / But it’s how I’ve always been / Did you love me when / He was just my friend?” The song’s sparse arrangement allows the lyrics to take center stage as Millsap sketches in his character beyond the central conflict. There’s frustration and sadness, yes, but also genuine confusion and a spark of hope that the father will be able to not just accept him but also counsel him. “Why can’t I sleep through the night / Daddy, do you think I’ve turned out right?” Millsap then finishes the song with a strong counterpoint from his protagonist. “I’ve been born again / But I first was born in sin / Did you love me then?” “Heaven Sent” is made more interesting by its nuance; Millsap’s refusal to make his character full of righteous anger is a smart storytelling choice.
Millsap’s take on “You Gotta Move” puts his blues howl front and center. If “Heaven Sent” was sparsely arranged, then this song is positively skeletal. Millsap, Foulks, and bassist Michael Rose trade blues licks in between Millsap’s vocals, while the whole song crawls along about as slow as they can possibly manage. It’s an impressive display of restraint and a worthwhile genre exercise, but from a melody and lyrical perspective, it’s one of the record’s thinnest songs.
This is not the case with the album’s twin centerpieces, “The Very Last Day” and “Hands Up”. The former finds Millsap looking forward to nuclear annihilation with sardonic determination. “When I see that cloud / Gonna sing out loud / Lift my arms and say, / “Praise the Lord! / It’s the very, very, very last day!” This is on top of a bed of herky-jerky, start and stop staccato blues that emphasizes the off-kilter point of view of the lyrics. “Hands Up” starts as a straightforward rocker told from the perspective of a man robbing a convenience store. But Millsap quickly delves deeper, explaining, “I’ve been to the desert, man / I served three tours… It’s hard to keep a job when you just can’t pretend / That you never heard a body bag zipping over your best friend”. The song sticks with this perspective, but it neither apologizes for nor forgives the man with the gun.
The album’s closing track, “Tribulation Hymn”, is not one of these pedestrian songs. Its string band-style music is very much in the spirit of an old acoustic hymn. But once again, the lyrics turn the song sideways, as Millsap takes on a character whose sister has been taken away in the rapture. He attempts to muddle through what’s left of his life, lamenting “He came for my sister / But he did not come for me”. This could be a downer, but the stylistic choice and the compact nature of the song (under three minutes), keep it interesting without dragging it down. The Very Last Day is full of material like this, and Millsap’s intense delivery keeps even the more pedestrian songs from getting tiresome. Millsap’s smart musical choices on this album bolster his reputation as one of the fresh young voices in the Americana genre.
// Notes from the Road
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