Artist: Parker Millsap
Album: The Very Last Day
In Brief: This alt-country record starts off incredibly strong, showing off the young songwriter’s incredible chops with a lot more instrumental bite than his last record had. (Especially “Heaven Sent”. If nothing else, please go listen to that one for me.) Unfortunately, the record’s uneven second half never quite reaches its initial level of greatness again.
Even though singer-songwriter Parker Millsap is from Oklahoma, it was pride in my native California that led me to stumble across his music. I was searching Spotify for songs about some of the states landmarks, and the track “Yosemite” came up. I was immediately hooked by his tale of a guy with nearly nothing to his name wanting to win the lottery and take his girl to see the natural wonders of the Golden state – it was kinda cute and quirky, but also incredibly sad. Parker’s gravelly voice had me imagining a much older man (turns out he’s in his early 20s!), and I figured I had stumbled across some obscure record from yesteryear that hardly anyone knew about, so imagine my surprise when I realized the album had been released in 2014 and he was beginning to make waves in alt-country and Americana circles. “Truck Stop Gospel” was the single that got him the most exposure, I think, and that one was perhaps a pretty good template for him as an artist – the cross-pollination of a Pentecostal upbringing and the wide-open spaces of the Midwest frequently give birth to zealous, but often flawed characters who are allowed to express views that may not be the same as those of the songwriter. This is a man who fully inhabits his characters without always telling a moral to the story from an objective perspective, leaving the judgment of whether these are good guys or bad guys up to the listener. It’s a well-worn road in country music, but he makes it feel new again, sometimes bringing to mind fellow rootsy singer-songwriter Josh Ritter in the process, though musically the two are quite different.
Parker’s second solo album, The Very Last Day, opens with a string of heavy-hitters, immediately showing off more musical intensity than his self-titled album, but still leaving space for the sparser, bluesier material that was sprinkled throughout that record. His weathered voice lends itself well to some of the more downtrodden material, but on more straightforward ballads or barn-burners, it can be downright inspiring as well, and I’m happy to have come to a point where I can say that, considering how intimidated I was at first to listen to an entire album of it in a genre that I’m not exactly an expert on. Whether he’s looking at the tribulation and the end of the world from the perspective of a believer who isn’t as fervent as he should be, a son who can’t earn back the love of his heavily religious father due to falling in love with another man, or even the point of view of the Devil himself, he fully invests himself in each little story. The ensemble he’s built around himself has a great deal of fun, peppering these songs with fiddle, upright bass, piano, harmonica, and even a little slide guitar. While the music does get a bit sleepy in the back half, a few of the ballads are among the project’s strongest numbers, so I appreciate both the breadth and depth that he’s going for here.
1. Hades Pleads
Parker waited until the very end of his last album to bring out its biggest barn-burner. Here, he starts with it (and come to think of it, the abrupt ending of “Land of the Red Man” would segue perfectly into this one). I’m a sucker for percussive guitar riffs, so the way he jumps back and forth between slinky slide guitar and palm-muted tapping to set up the driving rhythm of this song hooks me right away. Borrowing from Greek mythology, this song offers up a little sympathy for the Devil, so to speak, as the god of the underworld pleads for the woman he loves to join him there in the afterlife. The mouth sounds Parker makes – imitating the sound of a train, a knock at the door and the panting of three-headed dog Cerberus – make it that much more sinister, and yet kinda cute at the same time. But the real triumph here is how much fun his band has with it, pulling together an incendiary mixture of loud guitars, drums, and fiddle. I really can’t think of a better way to start off a record in this genre.
Next up is this light-hearted little love song, a surprisingly straightforward one for this particular songwriter, but he does it so effectively that it’s hard not to fall for it. Again, percussive acoustic guitar riffing is his secret weapon, but there’s nothing sinister this time out – just an old-timey combination of piano, upright bass, and a steel guitar for accompaniment. As Parker recounts all of the back-breaking work and insane amounts of money he’d be willing to spend to capture the affection of the woman he loves, it might actually be the playful rhyme scheme that makes it work so well: “‘Cause a silver lining/Baby, it’s blinding/’Cause I’m pining/For you/I don’t mind workin’/Until I’m hurtin’/There’s nothing I’m certain/I wouldn’t do.” Such simple words on paper, but his gravelly delivery works in his favor, setting him up as the dogged everyman we’d want to root for if this was a romantic comedy.
3. Morning Blues
Youthful love songs are all in good fun, but the real meat of a love story isn’t what you do to get together, it’s what you do to stay together. Keeping a relationship alive while weathering the storm of a deep depression seems to be the topic here, and his observation that “I ain’t afraid of empty, I’m afraid of all alone” tells us he’s willing to stick with her until she manages to “Lose those morning blues”. In a way, the song’s a kindred spirit to Elbow‘s “One Day Like This”, though obviously in a different genre – it starts off tender, even a bit mournful, with Parker picking away on a lone acoustic guitar (and I really can’t say enough about the creative little riffs he throws into these songs, even some of the mellower ones). But partway through, it erupts into a celebratory anthem for a person rediscovering the joy of seeing the sun again after shutting it out for so long. When the fiddle comes in and all the instruments are going full blast at the climax of the song, it’s a far more potent antidepressant than anything on the market today.
4. Heaven Sent
Get out your Kleenex box, folks, because this one’s gonna be a huge tear-jerker. You can tell from the slower pace and the more ominous chord progression that Parker is trying to handle this story with great care. Here, he’s singing from the point of view of a preacher’s son, who has run afoul of what might be the biggest taboo remaining in the Bible belt – he’s realized that he’s gay and now he’s pleading with his father for the same love and acceptance that the man talks a good talk about from the pulpit. What’s interesting is that the father-son relationship is the focus at first, and he doesn’t hit you with the revelation that he’s in love with a man until the chorus: “Did you love me when he was just my friend?” The rhyme scheme here just barely skirts the edge of being too cute for its own good when he sings “Papa, I don’t need a preacher/I ain’t some kind of creature/From a double feature”, but I love how the simple, folksy language puts the alienation he feels into clever, personal terms. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the song is how Parker manages to keep the focus at an individual level rather than drawing big, soapbox-y conclusions. This is simply a young man, one who still holds the religious faith he was brought up with or is at least trying to reconcile it with the silence and/or harsh treatment he’s gotten from the man he wants most to be proud of him. He just wants us to understand how it feels to be left hanging like that. It hits me pretty hard due to the fact that I have personal close friends, people I go to church with, who are estranged from their parents, or fear telling their parents who they really are, for that exact same reason. I think it takes courage for a songwriter to step into those shoes in a part of the country where his audience isn’t guaranteed to be receptive. It’s a lot harder to judge and to hate when you take the time to really know someone and understand how they feel, and I think that’s what he’s going for here. Now I haven’t said much about the actual music here, but trust me, it’s top-notch. Strong vocal melodies, with just the right amount of backing vocal support, the melody dipping at just the right points to make us feel the lurch of that emotional roller coaster. I’m floored by every aspect of this one. It’s hard to hear, but in this climate where it’s so easy to turn LGBT folks into a political football, an idea to discuss the prod and cons of in theory from far away without any risk to the rest of us, it’s absolutely necessary to hear a song like this one.
5. The Very Last Day
The End Times. Those three words will probably cause either a guffaw or a shudder if you’re familiar with them due to having a Charismatic or Pentecostal upbringing. While I’m one of those religious folk who believe Jesus is gonna come back someday, I’ve definitely come to distance myself from those who get so disproportionately excited about it that they insist it must happen soon and they seem to take perverse delight in the notion of others suffering a fiery death while they’re whisked away to heaven. This creepy, lurching, sorta-bluesy song takes it a step further and imagines that the second coming will be a huge nuclear explosion that wipes us all out, and the character Parker inhabits here can only raise his hands and respond “Praise the Lord, it’s the very, very, very last day!” It’s a jarring thing to juxtapose with the compassionate portrait of a young believer in the previous song, but that seems to be how Parker does things – Quantum Leaping his way from one soul to the next in search of interesting stories, even if they’re about people who are a little messed up in the head. The mixture of slow, churning electric guitar, organ, slide guitar, and fiddle here are a similar strange concoction of country and blues to a number of songs on Parker’s last album – it may well be his signature sound. It takes talent to engage an audience even if the thing you’re singing about kinda gives them the willies, and that’s exactly what he’s done for me here.
6. Hands Up
I made a Josh Ritter comparison earlier, and there’s perhaps no lyric on this album as Ritter-esque as this story about a troubled young man who holds up a convenience store. Ritter’s recent, more country-inflected effort Sermon on the Rocks, especially its similarly crime-themed number “Henrietta, Indiana” are what really bring that comparison to mind, though I can’t necessarily imagine Ritter doing a fast-and-furious, fiddle-heavy country.rocker quite like this one. (Still, a pairing of the two on tour would be a real coup, in my opinion.) Of course, a villain’s no good without an origin story, and despite the quick pace of the song, Parker manages to cram one in, taking a sympathetic point of view as he describes the young man having PTSD from a tour in the military, and basically he can’t hold down an honest job because of it, so knocking over gas stations is basically how he makes a living. (I have to call out another witty rhyme here – who else thinks to rhyme “pistol” with “fistful”?) The most clever aspect of this song is probably how what would normally be a throw-away line just to invoke audience participation, “Put your hands up”, functions as both a catchy chorus and the robber’s ultimatum to the poor kid behind the register. Crime’s not supposed to be this much fun, darn it.
7. Jealous Sun
So I’ve been almost non-stop gushing about this record thus far. But I only gave it a B. Something must have gone wrong, right? Unfortunately the songs in the back half of this album aren’t nearly as strong as the stellar first half. None of them are bad, but they don’t really captivate me in the same way. This gentle ballad, which is pretty much just Parker’s vocal melody following one he’s delicately picking out on the guitar, has an interesting premise. The sun is trying to steal his lover from him (don’t ask me how exactly that relationship works, though there’s a mention of Apollo later in the song, so this probably came from the same well of inspiration as “Hades Pleads”), and it’s not a fair fight. “I could see how Heaven could get lonely/But can’t he find someone who ain’t my only?” I guess his solution is to only bring her out at night or something like that. I don’t really engage with the story here because I just can’t figure out how the whole thing works or if it’s a metaphor for something I’m missing. It also bears the unfortunate disction of being one of the few tracks on the album to not emphasize rhythm, so it seems predictable that I would like it less, but I don’t think I’d mind so much if the lyrics fleshed things out a little better.
8. Wherever You Are
This one tries to get a thick, slow groove going with its heavier guitars and its throaty chorus, but I don’t find much memorable about it, to be honest. Like “Disappear” on his previous album, I get the feeling that it’s vaguely about wanting to escape from something. “Let’s leave it all behind and go hit the open road”-type themes are so common, not just in country music but in pop and rock music in general, that I need a little something more to grab on to. Using a game of hide-and-seek and the refrain “Come out, come out, wherever you are” isn’t all that clever here, and aside from the allusion to “Living in the Bible belt”, I’m not all that clear on what he’s inviting her to get away from with him. The line at the end of the chorus, “Honey, I just wanna ring your bell”, strikes me as oddly sensual in a song that otherwise isn’t, so I feel like if the song’s hinting at something more salacious, it just needs to go there, rather than pointing itself straight down the middle of the road.
9. You Gotta Move
I’ll probably take some flak for not liking Parker’s cover of this old “delta blues” song. I know there’s a rich history behind it, having been recorded by several African-American blue singers before The Rolling Stones got a hold of it and brought it to a wider audience. I’ve listened to their version and an even older one for context, and it still sounds goofy to me, like this odd combination of preachiness and sensuality. “When the Lord, gets ready, you gotta move.” Is it about acting on something when God prompts you to do so? Is it about death? What the heck does a law enforcement officer walking his beat have to do with any of it? I suppose I could take it all as a just-for-fun genre exercise – it’s kind of awesome to hear the violin let a solo rip in a genre where that’s not an instrument you’d generally expect. The crossroads of country and blues is where Parker lives, and this song is a great reminder of that. But he slows it down to the point where it’s just ridiculous, almost like he’s begging for a crowd to egg him on. It brings the record to a screeching halt after two songs that already weren’t that great.
10. A Little Fire
As simple acoustic songs go, I like this one a lot more. Like “Jealous Sun”, it’s mostly just acoustic finger-picking and Parker’s lone voice, but there’s more rhythm and more flair to it this time. He walks a fine line between intimacy and showing off here, as he tries to figure out why the spark has gone out in a relationship, and he wonders if setting their old comfortable lives ablaze (presumably in a metaphorical sense) and starting a new chapter will somehow jumpstart their love for each other. There’s a real tenderness to his delivery here that reminds me of the sad but hopeful “Yosemite”, and this one serves a similar function due to being second-to-last on the record.
11. Tribulation Hymn
Circling back to the End Times theme, the final track ponders a different outcome: What if a believer wasn’t deemed worthy enough when the Rapture came? One has to wonder if Parker arrived at this cruel scenario by perusing those campy Left Behind novels, but once again there’s no preaching here, just spitballing about what it might feel like for a man to know Jesus loved his sister way more than him, and took her away but left him to rot all alone on Earth. There’s a slight Celtic lilt to the fiddle refrain here that almost makes it sound like the kind of story I’d hear from a bluegrass outfit like Chatham County Line. It just feels very pastoral, no pun intended. While this is all a very engaging setup, I feel like the song kind of loses steam a few verses in and never really comes to a climax. After the final verse, which finds the man kneeling in an abandoned church, the pews and dusty hymnals the only member of his makeshift congregation, the song seems to want to set itself up for a climactic refrain, but then it just meekly fades to a close, leaving the entire album on a muted cliffhanger. It really takes a lot out of the song – and the record – when I realize how unfinished this one feels. Perhaps that was the intent, but it’s still disappointing.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hades Pleads $2
Morning Blues $1.75
Heaven Sent $2
The Very Last Day $1.25
Hands Up $1.50
Jealous Sun $.50
Wherever You Are $.25
You Gotta Move $0
A Little Fire $1.25
Tribulation Hymn $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: