An apocalyptic anxiety haunts Christopher Paul Stelling’s third album Labor Against Waste. Throughout its songs we find redeemers crawling on bloody knees, fire raining from the stars, stones crying blood, and the Four Horsemen approaching, riding over the hillside. Stelling sings of the sacred and the profane and of the gray area in between wherein most of us find ourselves lost and searching. He is developing into one of our most moral (as opposed to moralistic) songwriters, a truth-seeker whose songs are often parables, because that narrative form best captures the complexity and ambiguity of truth. Ultimately, though, Stelling is seeking a light amidst the darkness. In this, Stelling’s dense, complex lyrical imagery evokes the great Michigan poet of verdant nature and personal apocalypse, Theodore Roethke. Lines from his poem “The Waking” could serve as an epigraph to this album with its themes of exploration and personal redemption: “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear / I learn by going where I have to go.” Above all else, Labor Against Waste is an album of spiritual travel and travails and the lessons they offer us.
Consider “Castle” and its cast of characters, the pragmatic hangman, the suicidal jester, and the mad king, who would burn his kingdom down in the absence a male heir. Stelling’s counsel is to “Sleep under the sky tonight way beyond these castle walls” because even houses made of stone are temporary things. This song addresses the false securities we build for ourselves and posits instead a return to simplicity and genuine feeling. This message is amplified in “Dear Beast,” one of the collection’s highlights. Stelling explains that this song is “about taking responsibility and caring for the beast that lives in all of us and for the metaphysical beasts that we’ve created because of our inherent need to feel watched over and protected.” With its “wayward children” who “yearn once more to be free”, it is a parable for our post 9/11 security state, and the Armageddon-like crescendo of Stelling’s flamenco-like guitar run, matched with a looming, deep cello and violin accompaniment, evoke a looming battle where “The righteous stumble, fall, and bleed.” Album opener “Warm Enemy” is another high point and cautionary tale, where we leave ourselves trying to see through sand rather than glass because our media-saturated culture lacks the wherewithal and persistence to solve our problems rather than just find scapegoats for them. And “The Death of Influence” is a parable of favors bought and sold that should be sung on the floor of Congress. These are songs for our broken times.
But this is not an album of despair. Stelling seeks, perpetually, to find the spiritual uplift, the strength to face our fears and solve our problems, even amidst collective weakness and folly. He follows “Warm Enemy” with counterpoint logic, singing “There ain’t no sweetness in revenge.” The raucous bluegrass revivalist hoedown “Horse” finds Stelling facing down a modern-day witch trial. And in the mournfully beautiful “Scarecrow”, he equates the fortitude of a scarecrow on a hill with that of Christ, punished “for what he held inside his heart that he could no longer hide.” The song’s chorus serves as a tonic for these troubled times, a personal prayer or mantra: “Breathe, breathe it out / Lay your burdens down to rest. / Breathe through the doubt / Never let them get the best of you.”
Stelling’s longtime partner Julia Christgau offers vocal accompaniment here and on several other tracks, her crystalline voice a steady counterpoint to Stelling’s, which ranges from an earthy growl to a soulful keening. His previous albums featured sparse instrumental accompaniment, but here strings and horns, particularly those provided by Kieran Ledwidge on violin, Danah Olivetree on cello, and Lis Rubard on French horn and flugelhorn, add deep, emotive undercurrents. But Stelling’s guitar remains the focal point throughout, as it should be. He has been honing his style for years, at one point spending ten hours a day practicing until he’d developed this intricate, finger-picking style, influenced by the first wave of country blues masters like Skip James and Dock Boggs as well as later models like John Fahey. To this he has added deep inflections of flamenco style playing, especially evocative of the delicate finger work of Narcisso Yppes.
Stelling self-released his first record Songs of Praise and Scorn in February 2012 and has, since, been on a nearly non-stop tour of Europe and America, taking time to self-record two additional albums, 2013’s False Cities and this one, which earned him his contract with Anti- Records and which they are releasing untouched, exactly as he recorded it. Christopher Paul Stelling is not just an artist to watch; he is one to savor.