Artist: John Paul White
In Brief: White continues to demonstrate strong songwriting chops as a solo artist, though the bare-bones folk sound sometimes undersells that skill. A few more full-bodied, up-tempo tracks help, but since I know him as the guy from the Civil Wars, I can’t help but think that he shines brightest when he has another vocalist in the mix to play off of.
Alabama singer/songwriter John Paul White – whose name is not to be confused with fellow musician Jack White, and whose appearance is not to be confused with that of actor Johnny Depp – is best known at this point for being one half of The Civil Wars. Just like his former musical partner Joy Williams, he already had a solo career going before the duo formed, but unlike her, I wasn’t familiar with any of his music before The Civil Wars became a surprise hit. White had pretty much gone into a period of radio silence after they split up, leading me to wonder if he still planned to pursue a solo career in the wake of her returning to one. The answer was, eventually, yes, as Beulah came out a good year and change after her post-Wars solo album Venus. Both albums could be construed as making oblique references to the circumstances that split the duo up (which will probably never be fully explained by either party), but really both are about moving on and learning from the trials and tribulations they’ve been through.
What’s interesting as I get my first taste of White as a solo artist is that he prefers a much more bare-bones folk sound, only occasionally veering into roots rock territory, in comparison to the light, slightly folksy pop sound that Williams comfortably slipped into on Venus. His stylistic choices were probably the main driver of The Civil Wars’ sound, and part of the reason I loved the duo so much despite usually preferring my music a little more full-bodies, is because their two voices together were the real meat of it. They filled in the gaps beautifully, and for the most part, the music needed to have enough space in it to let them shine through. While I appreciate White’s expressiveness as a vocalist on his own, I was a bit spoiled by their vocal blend, and it can be a bit weird now to hear him all by his lonesome. That makes Beulah feel like an especially stark, quiet record on first listen, especially when his delivery is hushed enough on a few of the quieter songs that you really have to pay attention to pick up on a lot of the lyrical nuggets scattered all over this album. Think of the fragility heard in Civil Wars songs like “To Whom It May Concern” or the occasional bit of passive-aggressive sniping in a more attention-grabbing song like “The One that Got Away”, and that’ll give you a clue about the tone of this record.
What’s especially weird about the songwriting on this record is that White has an affinity for subtle wordplay that can mislead you into thinking a song is meant sarcastically or maliciously from the title or the opening lyrics, only to turn out to be surprisingly tender when you really pay attention to everything that’s being said. If there’s any lashing out happening here, it’s largely at himself, for his bad boy exterior disguising the heart of gold that very clearly exists at his core. It’s an interesting dynamic that brings internal conflict to the forefront of several of these songs, and in between you get a few songs of classic heartbreak in true country music tradition. There’s one song in particular where he recruits fellow Alabama natives The Secret Sisters to ramp up the drama, and the result is devastating in the most heavenly way possible, and I can’t help but wish he’d brought in vocal collaborators on more of these songs because of it. That may not be entirely fair to White as he’s trying to re-establish himself as a solo artist, but I can’t help what my ears are most drawn to, I guess. The good news is that, having lived with all ten of these songs for several months now, I feel like there’s a lot more that has slowly won me over, and I can appreciate the careful craft that’s gone into making each of them, even while having my clear favorites and feeling like a few of them don’t quite hit the mark. Ultimately, I think Beulah is worth checking out for anyone who was a fan of The Civil Wars, just as long as you expect to be subtly surprised rather than immediately blown away by it.
1. Black Leaf
One thing I’ve learned to appreciate about White’s finger-picking style is that it often feels like a gentle dance. I’m sure I must have made that analogy when discussing Civil Wars songs such as “20 years” or “Girl with the Red Balloon”. It comes up here in this delicate opening track as well, where there’s little other than his vocals and a bit of piano to fill in the gaps between the gently plucked guitar notes, yet the song doesn’t feel like it needs anything beyond that to be complete. Even when he’s playing chords, he’ll do these little walks between a few of them just to give the melody a little more character, which is a nice change of pace from your average back-to-basics acoustic guitar troubador. This song seems to find John pining over a woman he’s lost over a cold drink – possibly a glass of iced tea, which is about the only thing I could think of that would involve a black leaf, but the song honestly isn’t that specific. What’s important here is the sense of loss felt as their partnership dissolved – read into it what you will as he sings, “So bitter/In my heart and in my mouth/She’s a quitter/But I guess we’re both quitting now.”
2. What’s So
White has a rowdier, rockier side, as heard on The Civil Wars’ “I Had Me a Girl”, which had the same sort of dynamic of a gritty guitar refrain with dramatic pauses for a verse or chorus to fall into that this track does. It’s louder than his typical stuff, but not necessarily more upbeat, content to grind away on a syncopated mid-tempo rhythm, giving it just a hint of bluesiness. The theme here seems to be recognizing that you’ve grown too apathetic to believe a screwed-up world could really change, but still raising a glass in honor of the naive optimists who still believe they can fight that system – “For the fortunate few what don’t know/The difference between what should be and what’s so.” This feels like the Southern, rootsy analogue of the kind of song Elbow might write. Personally I think it would have a lot more impact if the chorus didn’t slow down for dramatic effect, at least not every time through. But it’s still a welcome wake-up call on a mostly mellow album.
3. The Once and Future Queen
Though it comes with a softly strummed guitar melody and a smooth vocal performance that goes down easy (with a hint of a female backing vocal on the chorus that I wish had been a little more prominent), this one really stings if you pay attention to the lyrics. Basically he’s taking the wind out of the sails of a woman he used to love, who is apparently still adored by everyone else, but he can see through her charming, manipulative behavior. In a backhanded sort of way, he wishes her well as they split up, noting that one day someone will make her happy, but it sure as hell can’t be him. The final chorus really puts the nail in the coffin: “And that’s okay/You never really loved me anyway/Not enough to meet me halfway/Love is something you can only take.” OUCH.
4. Make You Cry
This song, which falls into the “acoustic waltz” template that a few of my Civil Wars favorites used – is one of those songs that seems rather mean on the surface, but I’m not 100% sure it’s intended as such. Sure, he wants to make someone hurt, cry, plead for things to be different… but is this a vindictive jab at a former lover/partner, or is it a plea from the artist to the audience to pay attention, and maybe feel a little bit of the emotion he’s trying to communicate in such a delicately crafted song? I think that could apply both to casual listeners just looking for a catchy tune and nothing more, but I also think about it from the perspective of a person who devours so much music, there often isn’t time to consider the deeper layers of what a song actually means until I’m writing a review and I have to force myself to think about each song in greater detail than I would just casually listening through the album. Even when the music seems simple and laid-back as it is here, I’m reminded that a lot of blood, sweat and tears can go into the details of a song like this. It’s a good reminder. I don’t mind him making me hurt a little.
5. Fight For You
On an album as bare-bones as most of Beulah is, when a confident anthem like this comes riding in, even though it’s almost entirely based around a pair of guitars (one acoustic, one electric) with the rhythm section only coming in later, it sure can feel like a wall of sound in comparison to everything else. White does this sort of thing sparingly, but I’m glad he chose to do it here. In the first verse, he’s pretty much itching to start a fight – “Let’s take our guns to town/Let’s push someone around” – but it isn’t just for the sake of getting rowdy. He’s going on the offensive for the sake of someone he believes is worth standing up for, and he wants that person to have his back to. In a weird way, all the bravado and aggression is a sign of love for that person. This is one case where I don’t mind an up-tempo song breaking down to something quieter for a bit and then building back up again – I love how this highlights the imagery of the two of them standing together amidst the rubble when everything else has crumbled in the bridge. I feel like I needed an anthem like this at the end of 2016, because while I’m not the type of person to get into physical altercations, I’ve just seen way too much hurt dished out to way too many people that I care about. This song forces me to ask myself if I’m willing to endure a few (hopefully metaphorical) cuts and bruises and black eyes in order to stand up for a worthwhile cause. Not that any of these folks are incapable of defending themselves, but there’s strength in numbers.
6. Hope I Die
This is the one song on the album that feels a little less than genuine to me – not that I doubt the sincerity of John’s lyrics, but the way the song was recorded seems to suck some of the grit out of it. The sound of a tape rewinding at the beginning of it is gimmicky and has nothing to do with the rest of it, as far as I can tell anyway. I like how it gets started, with the very sparse strokes of electric guitar and John almost whispering into the mic, confessing that if he loses the one he loves, he actually figures he’ll hurt for a while but then get over it and find someone new. Still, he hopes he doesn’t have to live to see that happen. It’s a weird mix of fatalism and pragmatism, that I’m not sure would be terribly well-received by the person he’s singing it to, but then I don’t then it’s intended to make anyone swoon in the first place. What feels really disingenuous here is how the minimalist electric guitar and drum groove eventually gives way to this super-smooth, string laden final chorus after the bridge, that flattens out any drama that’s been building up to that point. It feels so stubbornly adult contemporary that it really takes me out of the moment. This is the point where John’s vocals finally open up a bit, and he does a good job, but I’m distracted by how easygoing everything else is. I’m a bit startled when the song abruptly cuts off at the end, and I guess it’s good to have musical surprises on a record like this, but man, this song is a total fish out of water that really didn’t need to be.
7. I’ve Been Over This Before
Ironically, my favorite song on the record is one of its slowest and most depressing. It’s also the most unapologetically “country”-sounding, thanks to the aforementioned guest appearance by The Secret Sisters. If you’ve ever heard the Sisters, then you know breakup songs like these are right up their alley – it’s got that whole “It really hurt to lose you, but now I know you were terrible for me” vibe to it. Over a slow, acoustic strum, John plays on words as country songwriters are wont to do, leaning on the double meaning that arises from the ambiguity of having “been over” something. Normally when you say you’ve been over something before, you mean you’ve already talked it through and they should know how where you stand on it and there’s nothing new to discuss. That’s certainly a part of John’s attitude toward this person who broke his heart. But then there’s the notion of being over a person, which means you’ve stopped pining for them and you’re strong enough to say you don’t want them back. And he’s basically warning whoever she is that he’s gone through that process once and doesn’t think he can deal with having to go through it again if she lets her back in, only for her to destroy him all over again. The Secret Sisters come in with their bittersweet harmonies at the perfect moment, hanging out in the background during the second verse and bridge, then taking over lead vocals for part of the last verse, just to drive home how devastatingly sad it all is with a side of old-school country kitsch. If you didn’t know The Secret Sisters were a modern group, you’d think they’d been sampled from a vintage recording. The song just has that sort of quality to it, and for me it works perfectly.
8. The Martyr
The only thing on the back half of the album that I’d even remotely call upbeat is this song, which starts off as a delicate fingerpicked ballad, but which picks up and becomes more of a mid-tempo coffeehouse-rock sort of a tune as it goes. It probably needs to do a little more to stand out musically, to be honest – I like when the electric guitar and drums come in to give us that sense of building up to a big chorus, but then it seems kind of pedestrian once that chorus actually arrives. The song may just be White’s most insightful on the entire record, as he dismantles the ego of a person who seems to play up their own suffering to get attention. “Keep falling on your sword/Sink down a little more/You said it best, nobody’s worth less than you.” The chorus makes it pretty clear that he’s actually poking a little fun at himself, in the hopes of nipping a self-destructive tendency in the bud, I guess. I also think the line “So pile it on/My back is strong” is interesting – possibly a reference to Shawn Colvin‘s “Climb On (My Back Is Strong)”? Overall, the song seems to be searching for a more powerful hook to really drive its point home. There are these very faint female vocals that chime in as the song comes to a close, that make me wonder why they even bothered, because they’re so tame and unobtrusive that they add nothing to the song. This one really could have been a signature song for White if he’d done something a little grittier with it.
9. Hate the Way You Love Me
It took me a while to realize how cleverly written this song was, how much I related to it, and that it was a standout despite its exceedingly soft-spoken nature. (Seriously, most of the first verse is sung so softly, you’ll miss everything he’s saying if there’s even the slightest bit of ambient noise in the room.) Given the title, you’d expect its mood to be a little bitter, perhaps even vindictive, but it’s quite the opposite. The easygoing strum of the guitar, which later meets up with a mandolin and fiddle, almost reminds me of the type of gentle ballad Nickel Creek might come up with, and John’s vocals actually remind me a great deal of Steven Curtis Chapman here, of all people. He’s picked a funny way to extol the virtues of the woman he loves, by pointing out how much it kills him that he’ll never be able to fully reciprocate it, because in his view, she’s an angel and he’s a bad boy. “I wouldn’t have it any other way/Heaven knows a sinner needs a saint”, is how he puts it in the chorus, and this time around I don’t mind that the female backing vocal is rather soft and unobtrusive. This particular song just needs that gentle touch. As much as I’m moved by this one, I don’t know that I can advise putting it on a Valentine’s Day playlist for your sweetheart or something like that. I’d imagine some people would read it as “Why are you taking what should be a compliment for me and making it all about your sad little pity party?” It’s the kind of thing that only works if you’re playing it for someone who really gets you. Proceed with caution, guys.
10. I’ll Get Even
The last two songs on the album pair incredibly well, since both are tender ballads that aren’t at all what they appear to be from their titles. This one’s a simple, finger-picked slow dance of a song that picks up right where “Hate the Way You Love Me” left off, making its quiet, solemn vow to spend every waking moment trying to be a better man even if it kills him. The goal is to “get even”, but not in the sense of getting revenge on someone who wronged him; instead he’s trying to live up to the seemingly unattainable example that person has been. If living well is the best revenge, I suppose it’s also the best form of gratitude, according to this song. I know I’ve been hard on John for not being as sonically captivating as a solo artist as he was with a vocal partner, but I’d say that this one needs him all by his lonesome for it to hit home. You really get a sense of who John is as a person and who he wishes he could be from these last few songs, and I feel like it’s a rare gift for a songwriter to communicate that to his audience so precisely and yet so artfully.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Black Leaf $1.25
What’s So $.75
The Once and Future Queen $1.25
Make You Cry $1
Fight For You $1.75
Hope I Die $.50
I’ve Been Over This Before $2
The Martyr $1
Hate the Way You Love Me $1.50
I’ll Get Even $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: