Marked a new voice in Americana music following his Grammy-nominated From the Ground Up, John Fullbright has streamlined his approach on his latest album, Songs. Taking a sharp turn from the front porch roots of his debut, Fullbright draws his focus on love and lyrics, leaving both bare for inspection on this personal collection of songs.
Such transparence is no more evident than on the requiting “She Knows”, with Fullbright cataloging the ways in which a lover is able to manipulate the narrator’s heart to “bleed on command.” Showing he is not above self-reproach, Fullbright contritely details his emotional shortcomings on “Until You Were Gone” with its after-the-fact admittance of love.
There is no reciprocity on Songs when it comes to matters of the heart. “I met love, love met me / And we agreed to disagree,” proclaims Fullbright on “Going Home”. In the questioning opener, “Happy”, Fullbright sings, “Every time I try to write a song / It always seems to start where we left off.” With the utmost sincerity, Fullbright poses “What’s so bad about happy” all the while feigning the title emotion by whistling his way to the final chorus. Whatever pain is harbored on “Happy”, the piano ballad “When You’re Here”, the thankful “When You’re Here” and throughout Songs is exorcised in the album’s reclusive closer, “Very First Time”, when the album’s dual themes are joined in the lines “Between love everlasting / And meaningless rhyme / Sits feeling good for the very first time.”
Two years removed from his debut, Fullbright has worked to hone his craft. He notes songwriting has “nothing to do with business, it has to do with art and identity.” Stripping away the largesse of a full band sound, the arrangements on Songs are minimal, predicated by Fullbright’s lyrics and accented by stark guitar and piano. Recorded live, the album has an assured feel that lacks any sense of immediacy. The meta-process of “Write a Song” finds Fullbright slowly feeling his way through word choices: “Write a song / Write a song about the very song you sing / Pen a line about a line within a line / Write a song about a song”.
As if affected by the demands of From the Ground Up‘s success, Fullbright implores himself to “Cherish these times, they’re already leaving” on the organ hymn “All That You Know”. The joyous “Going Home” speaks to time off from the rigors of touring and distance that he recounts on the relationship strain of “The One That Lives Too Far”.
The religious tenor of From the Ground Up is tempered but not absent on Songs. On “Very First Time” Fullbright sings, “I don’t believe in Jesus / I’m told he believes in me.” The seeming comfort derived by this thought is duly questioned in the macabre “High Road” in the lines “Living comes natural to many / Love comes natural to few.” Diverging from Songs‘ first-person narratives, Fullbright uses the third person to retell a traditional tale of true love cut short.
On Songs, Fullbright clearly stated his intention with the album’s simple title; lacking the roiling narcissism of “Gawd Above” or the slinking blues of “Satan and St. Paul”, Songs is not so much a veering departure as it is a deliberately studied variation on a theme. Laudable for its ambition, this well-crafted exercise in songwriting ultimately falls short of reaching From the Ground Up‘s heights.