Rarely does a recording artist arrive as fully formed as John Fullbright. Hailing from Bearden, Okla., Fullbright is an outstanding young folk-rock singer-songwriter who performs with grace and ease, inhabiting his songs with a wisdom beyond his years. On his second studio album, simply titled “Songs,” he transcends his Americana trappings with an introspective batch of love odes and down-to-earth stories. Eschewing the pickup-truck populism of contemporary country, Fullbright, 26, draws his strengths from the 1970s tradition of observational singer-songwriters, landing in a realm somewhere between Randy Newman and Leon Russell, or perhaps Harry Nilsson and Jimmy Webb.
Since his Grammy-nominated 2012 debut, “From the Ground Up,” Fullbright became a hot live commodity, touring relentlessly and appearing with elder spirit guides like Kris Kristofferson and John Hiatt. Delving into their heartfelt brand of confessional songwriting, Fullbright’s new record is more personal and melancholy than past efforts, focusing mostly on relationships – failed, estranged and otherwise. On the opening “Happy,” he immediately states his case: “Every time I try to write a song/It always seems to start where we left off.” It shares a title with Pharrell Williams’ chart-topper, but that’s about it.
The mood is subdued, but Fullbright’s gentle reverence for love and love lost compels repeat listens. His melodies are clear and accessible, and the classic structure of his confessionals feels old-friend familiar without sounding derivative. Maturity is a hallmark of “Songs”‘ worldview, and some of that insight clearly has been hard fought. On “Keeping Hope Alive” he muses wearily, “Days/Cliches and throwaways/Trying to learn better ways/It’s getting harder to survive.”
As a songwriter Fullbright allows himself to be extraordinarily vulnerable, and with powerful laments like “Until You Were Gone” and “When You’re Here,” “Songs” has all the emotional weight of a breakup album. Mirroring his pensiveness, Fullbright strips the music to its basics, playing with bare-bones instrumental support, his rich voice front and center. He is adept on piano, guitar and harmonica, but his skills as a player are subsumed in service of the song, embellishing a sturdy-but-understated framework.
The album’s final tunes show exactly why Fullbright is considered a songwriter’s songwriter. “All That You Know” is an astute reminder to appreciate what you have, while “The One That Lives Too Far” poetically highlights the inevitable heartbreak of long-distance love. Yet another centerpiece, “High Road” is pure dust-bowl storytelling, depicting the love and loss of an optimistic young couple living on a farm.
Ending the record alone at the piano with “Very First Time,” Fullbright leaves the listener feeling assured that his Americana sounds and intimate pop songwriting will continue to dovetail, unfettered by trends or mainstream conceits. Moving from strength to strength, “Songs” shows a talented young artist exceeding expectations and stepping proudly toward the pantheon of the legendary singer-songwriters he idolizes. -Mitch Myers