Shawn Eric Mullins’ 12th album, Honeydew, is a continuation of his propensity for songwriting. And, like any evolving artist, his latest effort finds Mullins distancing himself further from the Dawson’s Creek ballads he once so effortlessly composed, namely chart-topper “Lullaby”, and instead honing rustic and heartfelt compositions his raspy yet sultry voice delivers aptly. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Dawson, Joey, Jen, and Pacey, just that Mullins has more ambitious destinations than your favorite coastal teenage drama).
Having said all that, the opening track “All in My Head” is distinctly aspiring for top 40 recognition without any authentic musical merit. Using the chords C major, G major, A major, and F minor for the chorus, and to force the song’s rich sound, Mullins contributes little to the venerable progression—some of its most faithful curators being the Beatles’ “Let It Be”, Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”, and Phish’s “Farmhouse”. Conspicuously, the track veers from the rest of Honeydew both stylistically and lyrically. The result is a song with lyrics like “Is it all just a game / Is it all in my head?” that can easily be glossed over.
Moving on, the rest of the album is a more welcoming singer-songwriter listening experience. What remains are eleven tracks of Americana, rock, folk, blues, and country chronicling the histories of both distant and relatable protagonists.
“Home”, like “Ballad of Kathryn Johnston”, profiles a woman, but the similarities end there. Whereas “Home” aims to evoke the isolation, homesickness, and the joy of being homeward bound, “Ballad of Kathryn Johnston” is tall tale by the Southern songwriter. The former is also an endearing ballad, highlighting Mullins’ melodies—his forte—while the latter’s acoustic and tambourine-laced electric rock rolls along like a steam train, and could understandably be mistaken for a Widespread Panic tune.
Every musician holds some respect for the determination and dedication of the spectrum of buskers in any given city. Mullins shows his in an unrefined, stripped-down, blues and gospel track “Homeless Joe”. One even feels Homeless Joe is singing and clapping backup with Mullins, while another band of transients galvanize steel guitars into textures and a percussive polyphony.
“Leaving All Your Troubles Behind” is a sonic sojourn that demonstrates Mullins’s musical maturation in rock, as compared to his folk writing. Sounding more like one-time labelmate the sundry and soulful Bob Schneider than Jason Mraz, as on the opening track, it’s no surprise Mullins’s musical roots are also firmly south of the Mason-Dixon line. Additionally, the lingering diminished reverb suggests the listener stay for more fables and sonorous melodies.
Like his contemporary Kelly Joe Phelps (this Joe has a home), Mullins’s boot stompin’ rhythm-and-blues guitar riff and miscegenational vocals on “See That Train” create a rustic Delta-blues sound that literally sounds like a steam age chain gang’s puffing engine.
One could say Mullins plants his Southern, er, conservative, roots in “For America”. Singing about patriotic apple pie, whiskey, and cigarettes (he forgot the Colt .45), he eschews the inculcated experience of an ROTC scholarship and considers losing “his right arm on Baghdad highway…one hell of a price to pay / Fightin’ for America”. One’s life would also be pricey.
Politics aside, some of Honeydew ‘s tracks progress on narrative-filled rock with reminders of Skynyrd’s droning electric guitar lines. Others are straightforward but laced with earnest falsettos. Some are decidedly Tim McGraw country, yet others folk.
Overall, the album finds Mullins continuing down the path of idols like Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson while also diversifying his repertoire. However, he still makes attempts at recreating his hit “Lullaby” and the accompanying reassurances dictated by adolescent lust and heartache. Molting his vulnerable blithe pop-rock exoskeleton and writing compelling narratives with conviction, Mullins sounds mature, dexterous, and divergent.