San Diego singer-songwriter Greg Laswell specializes in radio-friendly folk-pop, his penchant for grand sonic gestures and songs of lost love and yearning having made him a soundtrack favorite. His songs have been featured in such television shows as Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood, and like those programs, which had their dramatic moments but rarely broke new ground or pushed especially hard at artistic boundaries, his work can effectively pluck at the heartstrings and evoke a sympathetic melancholy.
Everything we hear on Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet, his sixth release for Vanguard, was written, performed, recorded, produced, and mixed by Laswell, who has dialed back from the top-40 influences that, for some, marred his previous release Landline. What’s left, though, is a collection of moody, synthetically symphonic ballads that lack any sense of adventure. Electronic drums, standard, sleepy jazz tempos, and, even, Auto-Tuned vocals (on “Watch You Burn”) make the record sound dated upon arrival.
Which is a shame, because the opener, which gives the album its name, is a great song, one of Laswell’s best. In it, he makes full use of his Leonard Cohen-like baritone to declare acceptance of a broken love affair and his own role in its end, “Everyone thinks I dodged a bullet / But I think I shot the gun.” Then, as he continues to offer self-assurance, a higher, plaintive vocal tone reveals the self-doubt that is eating away at him. The marching organ and lockstep drums drive the song forward like an old Chevy chugging down the road away from the former lover’s town. The songs that follow, though, seem to give in to the kind of directionless self-pity that this masterful song avoids, and the energy it builds quickly dissipates.
“I’m going to be lazy when I write about you,” he sings in “Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet”, and, unfortunately, the evidence of the lyrics throughout the rest of the record fulfill the promise of this putdown, only to diminish the singer himself. Laswell is capable of biting, hard lines, but throughout this collection he reaches too often for the easy symbol or obvious statement. “You can keep your haunted house”, he sings in “Out of Line”, “The only ghost there was you it turned out.” He displays a similar metrical clumsiness in “Play That One Again” when he sings “I’ve always been quite on your side”. The “quite” is such a weak word to use as filler in that line; so many other words could provide the necessary beat while also offering emotive impact. Later, in the same song, he mixes metaphors, singing “I hope you find your bright blue sky with all the stars you’re missing”, oblivious to the illogical mix of day/night in the reference. One after another, this procession of put downs fails to make a significant emotional connection.
I can imagine this album finding an audience among like-minded lost lovers who need to wallow for a time in such pleasant-sounding melancholia. It’s a good album for that, but anyone hoping for deeper meanings should look elsewhere.