Artist: John Paul White
Album: The Hurting Kind
In Brief: White’s second post-Civil Wars solo album is a stronger showing than his first, demonstrating that he knows when to augment his songwriting with the strength of a backing band, and when to scale back to the bare bones approach that tends to be his default mode. The result is more of a full-bodied country album that knows when to play the classic tropes of the genre for full effect, and when to subvert them by throwing a curveball somewhere in the lyrics.
“Stop expecting this to sound like The Civil Wars.”
That’s the mantra I’ve had to recite to myself whenever either member of that wonderful, but ill-fated, Americana duo has come out with something new since the announcement of their permanent breakup in 2014. Both Joy Williams and John Paul White, who it’s easy to forget both had solo careers going before they began collaborating as a duo, are now two albums deep into their post-Civil Wars discographies. Judging from the first of those entries in 2015 and 2016, respectively, White was the much bigger driver behind the Civil Wars sound, since his solo work was a very similar blend of stark acoustic ballads and the occasional more driving folk/rock number, informed by country music but never quite fitting under that label. Williams has flirted with folk and country influence in her solo work as well, most notably on the new album Front Porch that she just put out mere weeks after White’s latest, The Hurting Kind. But she comes from more of a pop music environment, whereas White has the deep roots to make this sort of thing more believable. The Hurting Kind, at least to my ears, has turned out to be the stronger of these two new releases, finding White in more of a “full band” mode on several tracks, comfortably balancing his penchant for heartfelt ballads with sparse instrumentation with a few more upbeat numbers that I’m comfortable describing as straight-up country. It’s definitely a throwback to some of the classic sounds that probably shaped him as an artist as he was growing up in Alabama and Tennessee, rather than an attempt to cross-pollinate between genres and create something new and innovative. But it’s easily a stronger showcase for his witty and subtly self-deprecating penmanship than the hushed folk music heard on his previous album Beulah.
Now, as a city boy who didn’t grow up on country music, and who would probably classify most of the country music he enjoys as “alt-country” or “folk/rock” or something that implies a little bending of the expected rules and tropes associated with the genre, I’m admittedly not in the best position to be critiquing it. I tend to enjoy a lot of the instrumentation associated with the genres, while rolling my eyes at some of its most predictable cliches. Thus, I’m intrigued when subverting a few of those cliches seems to be an artist’s intention. And one of the country music cliches that I think White is particularly good at subverting is the whole thing where a long song title essentially gives away the central gimmick or punchline of a song. I noticed his clever habit of doing this on Beulah, and even in a few of the more passive-aggressive songs White penned for The Civil Wars. The title will lead you to believe the song’s about one thing, then the lyrics will reveal that it’s actually quite the opposite. “The One that Got Away” is probably the most well-known example, as it found the duo trading barbs with each other and singing, “I wish you were the one who got away”, describing a toxic relationship in which two people wished they’d been able to come to their senses and resist their initial attraction to each other. Uncomfortable for audience members who knew of the very real discord between that at that point, perhaps, but a thrilling angle for a song nonetheless. This tendency got flipped around on few of Beulah‘s songs, where he’d come up with a seemingly nasty song title like “Hate the Way You Love” me or “I’ll Get Even”, only for it to turn out to be a sweetly self-effacing love song about how the woman he was with was so damn good at loving him that she inspired him to be a better person. That trend continues on a few of The Hurting Kind‘s tracks, in the best way possible. Are there still a few songs where the gimmick is given away too soon? Yeah, if I’m honest, there are a few semi-skippable tracks that I don’t feel offer a lot of insight or anything that makes his take on the genre feel particularly fresh. But when he starts the album off with a song about “The Good Old Days” that proceeds to completely deconstruct the expected good ol’ patriotic Southern boy diatribe about how the past was better, that buys him more than enough goodwill to hold my interest throughout the rest of the album, including the few tracks that don’t quite live up to the promise established by that opening.
Now with that high bar set, don’t expect to go into this album expecting a ton of socio-political content. For the most part, White is best at writing songs about romance and heartache, and the point where one turns into the other but you’re still desperately trying to turn it around. There are only two or maybe three tracks that divert from this topic, and while I think there’s a fair amount of variance in the mood from one track to the next, it’s mostly because some of them are written from the point-of-view of happily married, while a few draw from that deep well of hurt and betrayal that most of us, even if we may be in healthy relationships now, have probably experienced (or caused someone else to experience!) at some point in our lives. There’s a reason why some of these tropes keep getting used over and over again – because they’re universal, and yet songwriters like White can still manage to find interesting takes on them. The Hurting Kind isn’t an album that is gonna change the world, despite the aspirations of its opening track. But it is an album that has great potential to soothe the listener who wonders if they’re the only one who has ever felt as cynical or as heartbroken as they currently do, and to say “You’re definitely not the only one.”
1. The Good Old Days
With a firm acoustic guitar strum and a nice little fiddle refrain to put some weight behind its main hook, White comes right out of the gate sounding more confident than I’ve ever heard him. As he sings of people in his hometown waxing nostalgic and longing for a return to how things used to be, he plays the role of the skeptic, wondering “What’s so good about the good old days?” A lesser songwriter probably would have given the full phrase away in the title of the song, but I like how White lets you believe for the first few bars that he’s swept up in the celebration, before doing an about-face and hitting us with that question. The second verse is where it becomes clear that he’s not cool with those who would seek to turn back the clock on society’s advances in the name of tradition: “It’s taken oh so long/For the world to start to understand/The true and equal worth Of every woman and every man/We’ve got so very far to go/So tell me something I don’t know.” Even while acknowledging that we sure as hell haven’t achieved utopia by a long shot, he’s perplexed at why we’d want to turn our back on the progress we’ve made thus far, and without totally spelling it out for us, it’s pretty clear that he’s got a strong counterpoint to the whole “Make America Great Again” mentality, basically by asking us to consider when it was great, and for whom it was great. Because all those folks who had to claw and scrape for the tenuous “sort of equal on paper, but not really so much in practice” status they have now certainly aren’t going to see a return to “those good old days” as something to be celebrated. Really strong performance here, and it’s a breath of fresh air to hear artists like White and his fellow Alabamans St. Paul & The Broken Bones embrace the distinct Southern-ness of their sounds while making it clear you don’t have to be wrapped up in regressive, Bible Belt-bred political views to identify with that part of America.
2. I Wish I Could Write You a Song
Writing about writer’s block is a tricky proposition. Every songwriter who tries this seems to implicitly hope that the audience will catch on to the meta-joke involved and think, “They’re writing about not being able to write, how hilarious!” It’s especially dicey when what’s supposedly being written (or not being written) is a love song, and that’s where White starts off here, lamenting that he can’t seem to pen a single verse that appropriately expresses how much he loves his wife. At some point, at least if you don’t want to end up in the doghouse, you’d better make good on your promise to get the damn thing written! The genius of this one is that, in the midst of his lament about how he can’t express it in words that are truly new and that no one has ever heard before, and in how he expects the song to play out musically (“A melody with harmony/Soft and sweet/Sounds like what it feels like when you dance with me/It sways and bends like violins/And it never ends”) he ends up coming pretty close to what he’s describing in terms of how the melody and the intensity of the instruments build to that unabashedly sappy release of emotion. It’s a genuinely cool effect, and it wouldn’t have worked without all of the supporting players – the unabashedly twangy slide guitar, mid-tempo percussion slowly picking up steam as he pivots into the chorus, even the very string section he’s singing about. Of course, the song does eventually have to end, because all recorded music is finite. But I like how it comes to a climax with what you think is going to be either the third verse or the bridge. It doesn’t need to come back to the chorus, because that last big push as he cries out one more time about the song he can’t write, it’s pretty clear to the audience that he’s written it.
3. Heart Like a Kite
Things get a bit sleepy for the next few tracks – though to be fair, Beulah was pretty sleepy from the get-go, so I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth after those first two songs turned out to be such heavy-hitters. The idea expressed in this song, that White is hanging onto a kite string for dear life, that is attached to someone he loves who keeps wandering away and apparently taking him for granted, isn’t a new one. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I could swear I’ve heard this analogy before. There are some subtle strings that at least help to build tensions beyond what the acoustic guitar can provide, and I appreciate the “slippery” way that they occasionally walk from one chord down to the next, but ultimately this song doesn’t have as strong of an identity as the ones it was put in the unfortunate position of having to follow.
4. Yesterday’s Love
While this is also a slower song, there’s a warm familiarity to the way it immediately kicks in with its laid-back percussion and its strong fiddle melody. I can see folks slow-dancing to this at a Texas wedding, is what I suppose I’m saying. Though since it’s a song about leaving a long-dormant relationship firmly in the past, maybe you don’t want to bust it out at your actual nuptials. I like the way he muses about what it would be like to have an actual time machine, and go back and warn their past selves about the mess they’re going to end up in, but then deciding against it because he wouldn’t want to spoil the ending. There’s a bit of wry humor in the bitterness here. But it’s quite clear that in the present, he’s thinking of severing that relationship for good, now completely disillusioned about what their personal version of “the good old days” was really like, but resigning himself to having one more last good day before one of them has to hit the road.
5. The Long Way Home
Speaking of hitting the road, this song about wanderlust (always a favorite topic of mine!) managed to transform my feelings about this record coming out from a mild “Huh, guess I’ll have to give that one a listen” to “Wow, I’m actually really looking forward to this one.” It’s the only other truly up-tempo track on the record after “The Good Old Days”, and it’s hands down my favorite thing White has done as a solo artist thus far. Once again there’s a big, confident guitar strum, this time with a defiant bounce to him, and by the time the electric and slide guitars come in, it’s easy to picture him enjoying a little “me” time as he zips down an undulating country road at inadvisably high speeds. The thing that helps to set this one apart is that he’s not simply wishing to get away from it all. This song also seems to be sung to his wife, promising her that just because he spends those long days on the road and isn’t always in a hurry to take the shortest route home, doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her or relish his time to be back there with her. He just needs a balance between his work, his family, and his solitude, and this is the solitude part of the equation. I may not travel for a living, but I still sure as hell can relate. The sweetest part comes in the bridge, where he reveals an almost religious devotion that ought to set her at ease during their time apart: “So kiss me long and kiss me deep/I pray to you my soul to keep/Every moment you’re by my side/So don’t you dare kiss me goodbye.” I honestly think it’s that time spent apart, at least when it’s done in moderation and in a way that is agreeable to both partners, can make a relationship stronger. After all, if you spend every waking moment together, what adventures are you going to have to tell each other about when you’re making conversation at the dinner table?
6. The Hurting Kind
I’m sorry to report that the title track isn’t really emblematic of the record at a whole. At first I was OK with its mellower pace, its more easygoing vocal delivery, how the soft drums and acoustic guitar just sort of melted together with the lonely ambiance of the steel guitar… but then I realized, this song is just sort of there, without making a particularly strong or inventive statement about why this person he was head over heels in love with at some point was so hell-bent on hurting him. He makes her sound like a one-dimensional villain just doing it for the evilz, while he was hypnotized by what I’m guessing were her looks, because nobody who treats a guy that way gets very many points in the personality department. There’s not a lot of depth to it, is what I guess I’m saying. And the music’s really non-committal, not really playing up the inherent sadness or frustration or outright anger implied by the lyrics. Instrumentation-wise, I’ll still take this over some of the more forgettable tracks on Beulah, but it’s the lyrics that really make me want to tune out here.
7. This Isn’t Gonna End Well
I guess track seven is the designated “duet slot” on John Paul White’s albums. “I’ve Been Over This Before”, his collaboration with fellow Alabamans The Secret Sisters, was track seven on Beulah, and that was far and away my favorite track on the record. Here, he sings with country music mainstay Lee Ann Womack (who, fun little footnote, had a track called “The Healing Kind” on the very same album her mega-hit “I Hope You Dance” came from nearly 20 years ago), and the result is a song about two lovers in a doomed, slow-motion trainwreck of a relationship that plays out quite a bit better than the previous track did. It helps that we get to hear both perspectives, and they’re both kind of blaming each other and themselves for how they knew the two of them as an item would be nothing but trouble. (This is clearly a favorite topic of White’s, which perhaps means I shouldn’t read as much as I did into all of The Civil Wars’ songs about adversarial relationships.) Yet, they can’t seem to tear themselves away due to that same sort of irresistible attraction that seems to take precedence over the horrible logic of the situation that they’re both fully aware of. I find this sort of thing a lot more entertaining when both sides of the story come into focus, rather than just one person scapegoating the other for all of their misery. The two voices coming together for the chorus makes this more of a dynamic arrangement – it’s a tad bit schmaltzy and showy, perhaps, but it’s got genuine personality.
8. You Lost Me
The lyrical conceit behind the third straight breakup ballad in a row isn’t one of White’s strongest. He’s trying to milk another phrase for its inherent double meaning – “You lost me” in the sense that someone’s trying to explain themselves and he’s not following their logic, and also in the sense the he’s literally walking out the door and she’s lost her chance to reconcile the relationship. This plays out with the expected dramatic fanfare, sad strings and all. Some tasty bits of instrumentation here that help it to stand out more than it would with just White’s bare guitar, but I still end up rolling my eyes when he flips it around to “You found me” in the second verse, flashing back to how she apparently met him when he was at his lowest point and brought him back up again, only for him to find her… in bed with another man. Yeah, it’s a bit of a lyrical contrivance.The song feels shoehorned around a forced structure that doesn’t quite stick the landing on its intended “aha!” moment when the meaning of the repeated phrase is twisted around on the listener.
We’re finally leaving the expected relationship tropes behind for this song – it’s really the only track other than “The Good Old Days” to be about something other than a happy marriage or a doomed love affair. I guess marriage still plays a role in this song, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle for a man who wakes up remembering his name, but not much else. Over bare-bones acoustic picking that more closely resembles the style of Beulah than anything else on this record (which I’m fine with because we don’t have several songs of this type in a row like we did on that record, but still I can’t say it’s a particularly thrilling musical backdrop), little bits of backstory were filled in about how he was a soldier, he went off to war, and he came home not quite right in the head. The woman he’s introducing himself to, who looks naggingly familiar, is of course his high school sweetheart, presumably also his wife, but he’s forgotten the last part. It’s a hell of a tear-jerker if you really pay attention, yet the guy is so matter-of-fact about the whole thing that you want to believe he’ll hit it off with her all over again despite the tragic loss of his memories from the first time around. There might be some really subtle social commentary here about how war callously chews up and spits out its participants, and honestly I think White could get some good mileage out of a character like this if he were to attempt more of a conceptual record that followed him through several songs about different stages of his life. In isolation, this is still an incredibly well-written song that makes me wish for more of the songwriting around it to rise to its level.
10. My Dreams Have All Come True
We’re back to the maudlin relationship stuff on this track, which is a bit of an odd choice for an ending because it feels really unresolved. In true John Paul White fashion, the titular “dreams” that have come true are actually nightmares about losing the woman he loves, and he’s seen them play out time and time again in his sleep, yet it’s never been revealed to him what happens after that point. It’s not clear to me whether this actually happens to him (or the character he’s playing in the song – there’s no way all of the relationship songs on this record could be true for the same guy at the same time, after all), but I guess that ambiguity is what leaves him a trembling wreck by the end of it. Musically, this is more or less the same type of song as “Heart Like a Kite” or “You Found Me” – basically a sad slow dance with some strings and slide guitar to accent the stark finger-picking. There might be a twist to it if I consider it in the context of “James”, where the real reason he’s losing her is because he’s losing his memory of her. (There are also a few wonderfully dark songs about memory and the lack of it on Rosanne Cash‘s latest record – now there’s a dream duet I’d love to hear!) But since the rest of the record doesn’t seem to play off of that concept, I’m not sure I should assume these last two songs are deliberately related in any way.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Good Old Days $1.75
I Wish I Could Write You a Song $1.50
Heart Like a Kite $.50
Yesterday’s Love $1
The Long Way Home $2
The Hurting Kind $.25
This Isn’t Gonna End Well $1
You Lost Me $.50
My Dreams Have All Come True $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: