2014's Great Songwriters
The cream rises to the top - if you're good enough you'll make it, the best will shine through. Even in the stacked-deck world of whatever is left of the music industry you have to believe this I reckon; it pays to - well, maybe it doesn't quite pay to - but you know...it's still the best measure, you have to figure that if it's good enough it'll find its way through, enough people will hear about it, be converted, start singing along and shouting out to their fans about it. In this social media age we're all the gatekeepers, we're all the followers, we've all got little - or big - audiences. We're all spreading the word and sharing the song and adding to the noise. Everything's simpler and so much more complicated. Everything's messy. And clear as mud.
This year I've found that what's winning through for me is the song. I can hear it again. It's shining through. Never mind the arrangements, never mind the tricks. It's never been about the gimmick for me, but sometimes the song gets lost in the hype, in the PR-spiel, in the hope that the artist actually has something different, something worthwhile. This year some of the very best music I'm hearing is about quality songwriting. Less-is-more songwriting. Simple stuff - that which you can't teach. Debut albums and sophomore albums and third albums; records from people still learning, still cutting their own path...
One of the first hints of this was Jason Isbell's Southeastern - though I probably can't count that as it's an album from 2013. It was new to me this year though, I was slow to catch up on this one. Well, actually, I was slightly sceptical at first of the noise - more than one person told me it was the best new Americana, best country-roots, best acoustic song-based album. And though I believed them, in a sense. I didn't believe any of them enough to follow-up. It was only this year that I caught on. And even if it mostly made me think it was the best Ryan Adams album in a long time it's still an example of great songs shining through. Also, the song Elephant. Man, that's the one. That's one any songwriter could only hope to get down. That's a gift.
Moving into 2014 the first album that really wowed me from a songwriting point of view was Robert Ellis' The Lights From The Chemical Plant. There's some amazing guitar playing here, and a high, lonesome sound to the voice - a yearning quality. But it's the songs. It's what he does with them too - an exquisite cover of a Paul Simon tunes shows that Ellis is clever with his bag of tricks, and he's bent it to suit the mood of his album, to fit it in almost as if one of his own songs, but before it's about any studio ensemble or wizardry it's about Ellis' approach to the song.
Then there was John Fullbright's album simply called Songs. There's obviously quite a boast in that title - you have to be pretty confidant and Fullbright deserves to be. Jackson Browne and James Taylor and Graham Nash were some of the names of thought of with this music, a return to that apparently simpler time, gentle songs that have a weight to them.
And then there's Doug Paisley's album, Strong Feelings. As with Ellis, it's his third - and in a similar way it's the best thing he's done, it builds on the previous outings, it rides on the fact that the foundation is great songwriting. Strong songs, something instantly believable - something about simpler times in these songs.
Hearing these sorts of albums is taking me back to when I discovered Lyle Lovett. And when I discovered Lyle Lovett, I mean of course when I actually sat down to listen to his work. I'd heard them name, had written him off as some country music clown, some lanky, gurning lackey. I was in a bar when I heard his first two albums, back-to-back. That might seem a cliché, but it was nearly closing time and the barman told me all he knew about Lovett - I was in the right place at the right time, I was there with my thoughts. And these songs were the soundtrack. And it made me go straight out and buy those albums - Pontiac, particularly. That was the first I owned, and still my favourite. And for a long time it sat in my collection without a peer - I mean you could see where Lovett had come from, there were hints of where he was going but this was a record for closing-time - in the bar or at home. And I kinda liked that it sat out on its own.
It's almost as if this year Pontiac has found some friends. Doug Paisley, certainly. Robert Ellis too. Fulbright and maybe Isbell - and just lately, the latest, Sturgill Simpson, with his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This, probably, is the album where I thought most overtly of Lovett (Dwight Yoakam too). For Sturgill is playing country music, through and through. With a band that nails it. It comes back to those songs though - like Robert Ellis he has that way of taking an out-of-context song to cover, bending it to fit his frame. Like Paisley it's about a purity. And like Lovett there's a kink to the smile, a style that might have been appropriated but that he wears as if all his own.
It's just the latest in a year of great songwriting; of albums that celebrate the song.
Oh, and one more - that's important to mention. Tiny Ruins' second album. I'd heard about the flood of great press, all those instant pull-quotes. A little part of me wanted to argue with that. All those others couldn't all be right surely. But a bigger part of me just wanted to hear the record - and hope, as always, for the best. Well Brightly Painted One is as good as anyone has said. And better. And yes Hollie Fullbrooke has a great voice, but it's her way of conveying the song, and it's thecolours within the tune, and it's the heart on sleeve approach and, finally, it's the song. The song. That's why the album is so good. She was already a good songwriter. That was why people had already noticed her. With just her second full-lengther she's shown she's a great songwriter.
Of course the song is always out there. And it's our hope, surely, as listeners, as people who care, that there are intrepid journeymen and women out there finding it, getting it down. It seems like 2014 has unearthed a few gems, a handful of new/ish songwriters getting it down. And then getting it down again. Building an album with no filler, no duds, no mistakes. Building a great album on the foundation of strong songs.
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