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John Paul White - Beulah (Album Review)

Friday, 26 August 2016 Written by Simon Ramsay

Some albums are slices of joy that get the party started and dancefloor heaving, raising downtrodden spirits with their uplifting elan. And then there are those best consumed alone in a darkened room amid feelings of simmering vengeance, crushing heartbreak and self doubt. Would you like to guess which style John Paul White, formerly of the Civil Wars, embraces on his first solo offering in eight years?

Following his split from musical partner Joy Williams, the Alabama singer-songwriter embraced a more sedate, private lifestyle. He was content to spend time with his wife and children and unconcerned with making new music.

The 10 songs on this southern gothic-stained album, which represents the first collection White’s penned solely by himself, aren’t so much the product of determined writing as ideas that slowly grew louder inside his head until he had no choice but to record them.

Although clearly a form of therapy for White, such introspective and cathartic records always run the risk of descending into self-indulgent wallowing. It’s a tightrope singer-songwriters must walk in order to create authentic expressions of experience and emotion, but the best do so by serving up enough musical and lyrical variety to mask the requisite self-obsession.

Moving from weary, philosophical acquiescence to scorned and malevolent, White masterfully shifts perspective and mood from song to song, maintaining an overall thematic coherence as his hypnotic, quivering delivery draws you into his world.  

Bleak Leaf is post-break up folk a la Elliott Smith and Glen Hansard, gently tumbling between bitterness and resignation, while the acoustic serenity of The Once And Future Queen bids adieu to a mutually unfulfilling relationship. I Want To Make You Cry smuggles its spiteful need for revenge in a sparse and violent whisper of a song.  

Elsewhere, The Martyr is wonderfully layered Americana with a syrupy commercial edge as White’s narcissistic, self-chastising inner monologue takes centre stage, while Hate The Way You Love Me and I’ll Get Even are somewhat backhanded adult love songs that bare feelings of inadequacy, shame and insecurity.

Diverse instrumental textures are woven into songs that slide between unhurried and haunting to something with more bite. The swampy blues-rock of What’s So – about struggling to rise above "your raisin’"– and romantic outlaw turmoil of Fight For You boast gnarly electric guitar work, while the funky riff, alt-rock rhythm and cinematic ambience of I Hope I Die imagines Damien Rice doing his best Jeff Buckley impersonation.

There’s plenty for fans of the Civil Wars to enjoy, too, even if the record does convey a different feel to White’s former act. His solo presence creates a more consistent and focused storytelling tone, but where Williams’ voice added ethereal light to his brooding dark, here the shade mostly prevails. Only I’ve Been Over This Before's quaint vintage folk comes close to capturing the Civil Wars’ aesthetic, while The Secret Sisters’ gracious vocals add that yin-yang dimension.

Ultimately, ‘Beulah’ is veracious singer-songwriter fare at its most pure, uncensored and unvarnished. Don’t let the fact it’s the feelbad album of the summer fool you into expecting a one note exercise in misery. It’s a beautifully composed, refreshingly honest and touching collection that heralds the welcome return of a special artist.

John Paul White Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon November 07 2016 - MANCHESTER Deaf Institute
Tue November 08 2016 - LONDON Bush Hall

Click here to compare & buy John Paul White Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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