Stephen Wilson Jr.
Photo: Stephen Wilson Jr. / Missing Piece Group

Stephen Wilson Jr. Compiles His Singles on ‘bon aqua’

Stephen Wilson Jr. describes his music as “Death Cab for Country”, which is accurate as his sound is part rock and part Nashville country.

bon aqua
Stephen Wilson Jr.
Big Loud Records
24 March 2023

Stephen Wilson Jr. describes his music as “Death Cab for Country”, which is accurate as his sound is part rock and part Nashville country. This fusion of styles mostly works to Wilson’s advantage. The rock energizes the music, and the rural details deepen the narratives. The only problem is that sometimes the individual tracks on bon aqua can fall into repetition.

Six songs on the new EP were all created and released as singles beforehand. The one new addition to the line-up, “American Gothic”, features co-writer Hailey Whitters. The title topic refers to the famous Grant Wood painting. The canvas views rural America through a double lens of irony and beauty. It is set in Hailey’s home state of Iowa. (Wilson was born in southern Indiana.) Whitters and Wilson know the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same at heart. They see the world and their pasts with a more modern and suburban sensibility. Hence the time-bound allusions in the chorus: “Mellencamp Springsteen marijuana 17 / White frost bean field bonfire kerosene / Red Bic lighter in a blue jean pocket / Lost in the land of American Gothic yeah,” makes one want to shout about “Pink Houses”.

The song’s not far from Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids” in its rhythm and tempo and invokes nostalgia for nostalgia. This theme holds true for the other cuts such as “Hometown”, “billy”, and especially “Year to Be Young 1994”. Wilson sings them with a strong, clipped Southern drawl and a dramatic grunge accent. His songs tell stories about the lower-class denizens of small towns and farms.

Wilson finds remembering the past as a better time than the present. Still, he doesn’t idealize what has existed. Songs like “the devil” and “Holler From the Holler” unapologetically present the evil in the world then and now.

Wilson aims for truthfulness in the details of his lyrics. There is an apparent, self-conscious desire to portray real life. His morality tale about domestic abuse (“Holler From the Holler”) may be too raw for some, but necessary for the song to work. (By the way, a great video of the song directed by Tim Cofield is available on YouTube.) The singer rhetorically asks to be trusted by using plain language. Even when the song topics are more mundane, their very vernacular quality lends to their honesty.

For the mass of people who inhabit Wilson’s songs, life is more boring than threatening. One is more likely to harm oneself than to be the victim of others. This is why kick-ass rock music matters. Life may only be as exciting as the new release of a Tom Petty album, but music is important. Living in the boonies doesn’t mean being cut off from the media of the day. Life outside the city still means microwaves, cable TV, and the internet. Wilson’s raw approach to electric instrumentation adds a needed stimulus to cuts that otherwise may be too mid-tempo.    

It’s not clear where the album’s title comes from. It’s not a song title. The name is French for “good water”. This may be doesn’t really matter, as it’s contents are fresh.

RATING 7 / 10