Music Reviews
3:09 pm
Mon June 2, 2014

John Fullbright's Uneven 'Songs' Finds A Way To Fascinate

John Fullbright's Songs is the most interestingly uneven album I've heard in a while. The work of a smart young man, it's also the work of a self-conscious young man who's prone to mistaking articulate melancholy for wisdom. Fullbright's debut album contained bold melodies and told stories about daydreamers and offbeat people. On Songs, Fullbright opts for pure mood-setting, sounding morose in an attempt to signal subtle passion, but that's not really how it plays out.

"Write a Song" is a song about writing a song that includes lines like, "Think a thought about the very thought you think." This is the kind of thing that can impress a high-school student as heavy or profound, but in the context of Fullbright's career, it sounds dismayingly like the sophomore jinx. That's the time-honored music-industry truism that, after pouring your life into your first album, the second finds you scraping for subject matter and metaphors. Fortunately, Fullbright finds more than a few good ones here.

While "Happy" doesn't actually sound happy, the sound is fortified with a surging vocal and the sort of catchy hook that Fullbright might do well to allow into his songs more frequently. He alternates between acoustic guitar and piano in this material, and I find the piano-based songs, with musical phrases that punctuate the emotions he sings of, to be of greater artistic success.

In "She Knows," Fullbright incorporates a good influence that popped up on his last record — Randy Newman, for the chords and the ironic stateliness. I noted in my Fresh Air review of Fullbright's debut that he "could use more humor." Well, that certainly didn't pan out. For a reason why, I noticed this new quote in his publicity notes: "When I discovered Townes Van Zandt, that's when I went, 'You know, this is something to be taken pretty damn seriously.'" Uh-oh. Emulating the ultimate Texas singer-songwriter of the '70s — down that road lies strangling similes and doleful romanticism. It comes as a relief whenever Fullbright shortens his lines and phrases his emotions with succinct clarity.

Ultimately, Songs feels like the work of an artist who's still figuring out who he is, where he wants to go, and what he wants to elaborate upon — or invent anew. There's no doubt that John Fullbright is a substantial talent. Now, he just has to cut himself a break and start enjoying that talent a little more.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of John Fullbright's second album, simply titled "Songs." Fullbright's an Oklahoma singer-songwriter in his mid-20s, whose 2012 debut was nominated for a Grammy award. Ken says the new album is at once fascinating and problematic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU'RE HERE")

JOHN FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Ever changing, ever moving, ever finding, ever losing, every moment of our choosing, there's a cause. As for lonely, I can show you, how to live a life alone. All it takes is getting used to getting lost. Summer lovers, summer leaches...

KEN TUCKER: John Fullbright's "Songs" is the most interestingly uneven album I've heard in a while. The work of a very smart young man, it's also the work of a very self-conscious young man, one prone to mistaking articulate melancholy for wisdom. Fullbright's debut album contained bold melodies and told stories about daydreamers and off-beat people. On this new one, Fullbright opts for pure mood setting, sounding morose in attempt to signal subtle passion. But that's not really how it plays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRITE A SONG")

FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Write a song. Write a song about the very song you sing. Pen a line about a line within a line. Write a song about a song. Think a thought. Think a thought about the very thought you think. Hold a pen, and write a line about the ink. Think a thought about a thought.

TUCKER: That's "Write A Song," a song about writing a song, that includes lines like, think a thought about the very thought you think. This is the kind of thing that can impress a high school student as heavy or profound, but in the context of John Fullbright's career, it sounds dismayingly like the sophomore jinx. That's the time honored music industry truism that after pouring your life to date into your first album, the second finds you scraping for subject matter and metaphors. Fortunately, Fullbright finds more than a few good ones here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")

FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Every time I try to write a song, it always seems to start where we left off. Tonight I'd rather stand up straight, look it in the eye, and won't you tell me what's so bad about happy. I don't want to have another friend. I don't want to wonder how your life has been. I just want to set things straight, apologize to you. And somebody tell me what's so bad about happy.

TUCKER: That's "Happy," and while it actually doesn't sound happy, the sound is fortified with a surging vocal and the sort of catchy hook that Fullbright might do well to allow into his songs more frequently. Fullbright alternates between acoustic guitar and piano on these songs. And I find the piano-based songs, with musical phrases that punctuate the emotions he sings of, to be of greater artistic success.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE KNOWS")

FULLBRIGHT: She knows a thing or two about me. She didn't learn in passing. She knows I'm scared of the dark. She knows I'll bleed on command. She knows I'll shut my mouth, if she'll take my hand and just how cruel I can be. She knows a thing or two about me.

TUCKER: On that song, "She Knows," Fullbright uses a good influence that popped up on his last record - Randy Newman for the chords and the ironic stateliness. I noted in my FRESH AIR review of Fullbright's debut that he could use more humor.

Well, that certainly didn't pan out. For a reason why, I noticed this new quote in his publicity notes - when I discovered Townes Van Zandt, that's when I went, you know, this is something to be taken pretty damn seriously. Uh oh. Emulating the ultimate Texas singer-songwriter of the '70s, that way lies strangling similes and a doleful romanticism. It comes as a relief whenever Fullbright shortens his lines and phrases his emotions with some succinct clarity.

(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "CHILD IN THE MIRROR")

FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Don't answer the phone. Don't answer the door. Pretend nobody lives around here anymore. No need to get up. I brought the wine. And I feel all right, for the very first time.

TUCKER: Ultimately, "Songs" feels like the work of an artist who's still figuring out who he is, where he wants to go, what he wants to elaborate upon or invent anew. There's no doubt that John Fullbright is a substantial talent. Now he just has to cut himself a break and start enjoying that talent a little more.

DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed John Fullbright's new album called "Songs." For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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