On Itinerant Arias, a masterful collection of songs, Christopher Paul Stelling is willing to take his listeners into dark places, but he never loses faith in the light.
Throughout his fourth album, Itinerant Arias, Christopher Paul Stelling repeatedly returns to images of rising waters and warnings of a coming flood. Such are apt metaphors for the current time when both sides of the political spectrum feel threatened by forces they can neither control nor fully understand and when our social discourse is awash with apocalyptic paranoia.
The bulk of Itinerant Arias, was written on the road as Stelling supported his 2015 Anti-Records debut, Labor Against Waste, both in the U.S. and abroad, and the struggles he observed in his travels have colored this record. Stelling describes the new album's conception in almost prophetic terms, describing himself as writing “about something that hadn't happened yet" and playing the new songs for audiences who weren't willing or able to see the changing landscape, “and now it's happened". He continues that “I'm not patting myself on the back about it," but those experiences strengthened his resolve and fuel the passion at the heart of these songs.
Much of what Stelling saw in his travels was troubling, and several of the album's strongest cuts confront his anger at the state of things. “Ain't it funny what a man will do to be another brick in the tower?", he sings in “The Cost of Doing Business", confronting the growing complacency of the minions who perpetuate the blind, dehumanizing greed of our corporate structures. In “Sleep Baby Sleep" he declares that “When all the leaders live like bottom feeders" and continue to “talk about Jesus like they don't even see us", then it's time for a revolution to come. In “Stranger Blues" he sings from the perspective of the outcast willfully misunderstood and at the mercy of the righteous mob, the raucous music rising in cacophony to match his mood. Finally, in one of the album's strongest cuts, “Badguys", Stelling alludes to the waters of revolution rising with the growing discontent of the downtrodden: “Let us not forget that we are merely children of men / The only things worse than original sin / Is the knowledge that the bad guys always win!"
But it is among these moments, spitting his most visceral anger, that Stelling demonstrates his ongoing optimism. Itinerant Arias is an album that is willing to take its listeners into dark places, but Stelling never waivers in his belief in the power of light. Despite the fears it expresses and the desolation it catalogues, this is a record of hope.
Album opener “Destitute", inspired by the dread of leaving home for yet another tour, is a plea for perspective and perseverance in these troubling times (“You may be tired, you may be broke, but you're not destitute / You have friends, they love you so: no, you're not destitute"). Meanwhile, in “You Have to Believe", he addresses the cleansing of the flood, singing “These rich old men all drunk on blood / Still unprepared for the rising flood: / You have to believe". And on the album's most beautiful song, “Oh, River", Stelling composes a love song that reminds us that, for all of its violent and transformative power, water is a source of life. Finally, the album closer, “A Tempest", urges the listener to “Sing the tempest to sleep / Keep the fear at bay."
Stelling accomplishes a rare thing in his songwriting, producing Christian-inflected lyrics that evoke scriptural lessons and references rather than identity politics. That is, religion serves, in Stelling's songs, neither as a club to hammer platitudes nor as a straw man to tear down. Unlike so many, Stelling addresses spiritual matters with complexity and true human compassion. When Stelling calls for prayer in “Destitute", for instance, it is not a passive plea for a solution outside of the self but rather a call to look inward for personal strength. Scriptural imagery and reference points appear throughout all of Stelling's work and serve to amplify his commitment not to a specific creed but humanity in general.
Where his previous albums have featured his masterful guitar playing with minimal accompaniment, Itinerant Arias is a full band album. Jordan Rose's drumming moves from martial beats to light brush shuffles as needed and Chris Peck's engineering serves to broaden Stelling's sound in a way that enhances the power of his words, just as bassist Michael Harlen brings punch to Stelling's angrier numbers. Longtime partner Julia Christgau continues to provide crystalline backing vocals in counterpoint to Stelling's rougher vocal tones. The secret weapon here is violinist Kieran Ledwidge, whose playing weaves and wails around his bandmates, both echoing and evoking emotional response.
Christopher Paul Stelling arrived on the scene in 2013 with a distinctive sound already formed on his debut record Songs of Praise and Scorn. Over the course of four albums, he has continued to refine that sound to his growing vision of our complex world. With Itinerant Arias he takes a bold and successful step forward as a bandleader and master chronicler of our times.