OK, first things first: Amos Lee has a terrific singing voice. The warm, burnished soul of his vocals falls somewhere between Ray Lamontagne, Bill Withers, and John Prine. He also has an all-star collection of famous fans – over the years, he’s served as an opening act for everyone from Norah Jones to Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello to Van Morrison, and his albums often feature a bevy of impressive guest stars.
Which brings us to My New Moon, Lee’s seventh (and latest) album and his first since 2016’s Spirit. There’s a lot to appreciate here, and Lee’s voice is arguably the most attractive aspect. But it’s often bogged down in uninspiring songwriting and arranging, not to mention a wealth of clichés. In the press release for My New Moon, it’s referred to as “the most wide-ranging musical effort of his career, a set of songs that examines issues of mortality, survival, connection, and celebration in ways that are both deeply personal and profoundly universal.” That’s all well and good, but it seems that on most of the album’s ten songs, the execution doesn’t exactly match the ambition.
To his credit, Lee frontloads My New Moon with a pair of gems. Opening track “No More Darkness, No More Light” is framed by a bright, catchy Afropop arrangement that sounds like Paul Simon sitting in with Vampire Weekend. “Louisville” is an engaging slice of Springsteen Americana, complete with love-struck, homespun lyrics (“She cleaned my clock, but it’s ticking still / I’m headed back to Louisville”) and a swaggering, “Be My Baby” drum beat in the verses.
But it doesn’t take long for things to fall apart. “Little Light” sounds like a slick ’90s pop/soul single peppered with a faux funk beat, cooing backup vocals, and a sitar riff that invites distracting comparisons to “Every Time You Go Away”. While going the retro route, Lee ends up mining the wrong decade. “All You Got Is a Song” is a slight improvement, as Lee completely gives in to his soul crooning instincts with mostly positive results.
But while the ballad “I Get Weak” is a further attempt to capitalize on the “quiet storm” vibe, it often ends up toothless and unfocused. The album’s most cringe-worthy song, however, is probably “Don’t Give a Damn Anymore”, an attempt to sound angry, sinister and rebellious, but eventually coming off as someone who’s trying too hard to put together an eclectic album. You can almost picture Lee explaining the song in the studio with veteran producer Tony Berg: “This is the one where I’m pissed off! Check it out!”
Some of the album’s better moments come when Lee acts naturally and doesn’t try too hard. “Crooked” is an engaging, uncomplicated bit of folk-funk, with industrial-sounding percussion providing a warm backdrop to Lee’s soulful verses. Veteran producer Tchad Blake, who mixed the album, has his fingerprints all over this; much of the work he’s produced over the past few decades gives a sometimes overbearing “Tom Waits Lite” feel to the arrangements, but he dials it down here, giving Lee’s songs a unique atmosphere without seeming overly burdensome.
My New Moon closes with “Don’t Fade Away”, a track that gathers together some of the best and worst aspects of the album. The production is warm, skillful and easy to get lost in. But the song itself is inconsequential and fails to communicate anything new or exciting for the listener. With an intoxicating voice and an awful lot of talent, Amos Lee can make a great album and has done so in the past. But My New Moon often feels like a lazy stopgap.