[25 September 2013]
That voice. There’s truly no way to talk about Jonny Lang without bringing up just how unique his vocals are, especially given his young age. Whether it’s his pristine visage—on full pretty-boy display on the sleeve art to Fight for My Soul, his first studio record in seven years—or his ordinary speaking voice, it’s easy to see why so many get blindsided by how scabrous he sounds once he’s stepped up to the mic. Lie to Me, his 1997 big-label debut, was released just a day before his sixteenth birthday, but even then his pipes sounded like they belonged to someone a couple of decades his senior, the kind of singer whose post-show relaxation consists of whiskey, cigarettes, and Burzum karaoke. It’s a ragged, gritty, and imperfect thing that’s perfect at evoking the sorrows and troubles his music is so frequently drowned in. Yet, for however ideal in theory his jagged singing may be given the genres he purveys in, not everyone is enamored by it; AllMusic critic Hal Horowitz describes Lang’s performance on his underrated 2003 LP Long Time Coming as the sound of a person “straining to zip up his trousers”. Horowitz’ jab is, in some senses, not far off; Lang’s vocals are labored, but pointedly so. There’s an authenticity and edge that comes in his presence as a singer, which does leagues in distancing him from his contemporaries. Simply put, those who find John Mayer’s take on blues rock to be a bit too pop-oriented, Lang is as good an option as any out there.
With his latest studio venture, however, Lang is veering closer to Mayeresque territory. Undoubtedly the poppiest thing he’s ever recorded, this album is a pristinely polished, uniformly hook-heavy collection of blues pop/rock. Lang’s last studio LP, Turn Around, is an attempt at rootsy, authentic blues gospel, a decidedly different tactic than Long Time Coming, which includes would-be hits like “Red Light”. Fight for My Soul is a reversion back to the latter, which is truly where Lang’s finest potential as a songwriter always resided. As far back as Lie to Me, he’s mixed standards with contemporary songs, and while his unique voice allows him to sell himself as a traditional bluesman in a manner more convincing than the average up-and-comer, his grasp of the day’s pop and rock is compelling in a way his take on the classics isn’t. “Give Me Up Again” and “Red Light” are both the type of song one puts on in the background while he runs his tab up to drink away his sorrows, but they’re also supremely catchy and, most importantly, forceful. His vocals can lead his songs to get caught up in their own drama to the point of being overheated, but when he controls his anguish he’s thoroughly believable.
It’s in that control where the first obvious success of Fight for My Soul lies. That attention-grabbing voice of his remains as gnarled as it’s ever been; but, unlike before, vocal range is a much larger part of the sonic equation. Lang spans from sweet falsetto to smooth soul here, and as a result he both evades relying on his vocals as a bluesy gimmick and expands his own capabilities as a singer. On top of this, Lang enhances his singing with an all-aces production staff. Roughness and imperfection may be prized qualities in the recording of blues and soul, but with Lang’s emphasis on pop hooks this clean-cut approach is ideal. This isn’t to say, however, that this is all saccharine sheen; the riffs here are groove-heavy, punchy, and loaded with that “blues magic” that Cedric the Entertainer once so humorously described. On the album’s opening trifecta, “Blew Up (The House)”, “Breakin’ In”, and “We are the Same”, Lang offers up ample evidence that one can utilize the mechanisms of pop music and nonetheless remain intense in a gritty, bluesy way. The chorus of “We are the Same” is of the same ilk as Adele’s 21: high drama, bad love-driven angst, and a heaping spoonful of strings to elevate the mood. The grandiose closer “I’ll Always Be” follows this formula so well one wonders if Adele’s cabal of producers left it on the cutting room floor for Lang to find. When these pop sentiments cut too close to cheesy, as with the gospel number “River”, the execution is only just a bit off; after all, at 32 Lang is simultaneously an industry vet and a still promising up-and-comer. There are bound to be some wrinkles to iron out.
Lang is lucky enough, though, that the weaknesses of Fight for My Soul derive not from his abilities but instead from his ambitions. This truly feels like it was six years in the making; the energy level is palpable. What this means for the latter half of these 11 tracks is that the heat dies down, and even in the presence of an incredible opening half this brake in pace is obvious. Wisely, Lang places the LP’s most dramatic cut, “I’ll Always Be”, at its end, but its confessional grandiloquence isn’t as noteworthy as the music that begins the album. At this stage in the game, if Lang’s only real problem is that he doesn’t distribute his energy evenly amongst his songs, it’s safe to say that not a whole lot of footing has been lost since Turn Around. In fact, quite a lot has been gained; to that end, Fight for My Soul marks Lang’s most fully formed work as a musician. The aforementioned Adele comparison is accurate for many facets of the album itself, but there’s one other trait that remains to be seen for Lang: breakout popularity. To be sure, the potential is all here; all that’s needed are willing ears.