It’s an ancient riddle found in the folk tales of many cultures in different forms. How does one know when someone who calls themselves a liar is telling the truth? If they are genuinely a liar, are they lying about being a liar? Does that mean they are not a liar and are telling the truth, or are they really lying? The paradoxical situation has no easy answer to the question. The enigmatic singer-songwriter from Oklahoma, John Fullbright, calls himself “The Liar” on the title track to his first album in eight long years. He’s telling the truth, or is he?
In other words, the truth is The Liar is a killer album full of insightful lyrics about the human condition delivered with a soulful voice and forceful instrumentation. Fullbright nails down what matters about living day to day as he searches for meaning in this strange world. Fullbright doesn’t offer cliched homilies about love, art, and God, although these topics are all addressed. Instead, he uses his music to question these familiar bromides. When lies become the truth, nothing seems to matter.
The 12 tracks make a crazy quilt of an album. The songs can be serious, silly, or both simultaneously. Fullbright addresses religious and secular concerns over honky tonk accompaniments and churchy soundtracks with equal aplomb. Sometimes he is the only human being in a world without love. Other times he wonders if love is important or if anything matters.
But of course, the answer is that everything is important, like a drink to a thirsty man. “God, grant me whiskey / And I promise to be good,” he sings. He notes that if there’s a merciful supreme being who helps the needy, the Lord will supply him with alcohol. The irony here is that drinking is a sin. Fullbright acknowledges his thirst for booze as a way of being honest. He tells the truth (or is he lying?) over a drunken-sounding piano, an off-kilter guitar, and a drummer who can’t seem to stay in time as if he and his band are intoxicated. Fulbright gleefully prays to a higher power to help him commit transgressions. He clearly enjoys his predicament.
Fulbright sings about whiskey in several other songs. He finds alcohol lubricates his social skills and lets him behave in ways he might be too shy to do otherwise. He also knows it can be poison and compares the drink to gasoline as unfit for human consumption. Like love, alcohol can stimulate and provide pleasure, but more frequently, it causes pain. The safest thing to do is to lock up one’s heart. But the temptation to be with a lover is too hard to resist. “You’re still here / And I’m still there / It’s safe to say I’m in love,” he admits. But he knows he’s not safe from the sorrow that’s doomed to follow.
It’s been eight years since Fullbright last released an album. Much has been made of the fact that he withdrew from the scene when his career was exploding. In 2013 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for From the Ground Up and for Emerging Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association. In 2014 he won the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame Rising Star Award, but he has not released a studio record since 2014. During the years that followed, he still made music in public with different local (Oklahoma) players, but he kept a low profile. Part of the pleasure of this new record comes from his interaction with different band members. They all sound like they are having fun, even when the lyrics get heavy.
The Liar suggests Fullbright understands the transcendent reality provided through music. The line between reality and lies is murky, and he’s clever enough to understand one can lie (especially to oneself) by telling the truth. That’s just a different kind of prevarication.