A powerful new solo effort
Coming out of one artistic entity into another is no easy feat, but on his anticipated solo release Beulah, John Paul White shows the world that his soul as an artist surpasses any one album, partnership or scene. The singer-songwriter has put forth his first solo record in nearly a decade, showing off his immense picking talents and mournful, melodic voice with a collection of poignant songs full of emotional metaphors and evocative hooks.
White entered mainstream music’s consciousness with the breakout popularity of The Civil Wars, a singer-songwriter duo whose sensitive songs and immaculate harmonies were embraced by folk and indie scenes alike. There was a sense of inevitably about their songs, as if their voices matched so well that they were writing songs that needed to be put out into the world. But White and Joy Williams officially broke up in 2014, after citing irreconcilable differences in their partnership and cancelling a tour in the fall of 2012.
On Beulah, White emerges from the shadows of The Civil Wars as a solo artist rooted in southern gothic rock, but flooded with gentle Americana harmonies and melodies. Several of the tracks were cut at the illustrious and world-renowned FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, including the second track “What’s So,” a song that features a great vocal performance and some gritty guitar playing.
That southern rock vibe reappears a few tracks later on the foot-stomping “Fight for You,” an ode to the moment-of-truth in a passion-filled relationship that lets White growl a little, mutter under his breath a little, and furiously strum.
The album is released on Single Lock Records, a label that White co-founded with Ben Tanner, keyboardist of the Alabama Shakes, and Will Trapp, a native of Shoals where the label is based. There’s something about this storied northwest corner of Alabama that seems to have has soul, riffs and rhythms ground into its dirt and grown into its leaves, so that the music might spill into the air and breathe talent into its people — and that magic dust is all over Beulah.
For some listeners, it might be impossible to untangle White’s work now from the fallout of The Civil Wars breakup – but even if you don’t know, or care, about the backstory, it’s a heartbreaker of an album. White is master of the melancholy, and parts of Beulah are just as shockingly cutting as they are vulnerable. “Would it kill you to do some burning/I’m not asking too much of you,” he sings on “Makes You Cry,” a song that bravely admits a two-way street of emotional pain, a kind of anger you don’t often find in ballads. The pairing is haunting.
“Hope I Die,” which kicks off with a prominent funky bass line, captures a certain kind of hopelessness but wraps it in soulful grooves, silky bridge melodies and a cinematic string section. It culminates in a jam session with rich, warm guitar tones, making for one of the album’s most memorable songs and also one of its most unique.
Though all this gorgeous, gloomy music stems from one man’s vision, the album feels full and polished with a full band’s touch including precise drum parts, keyboards, string sections and floating background harmonies scattered across the album. Lead single “The Martyr” brings the rock edge of the album, and also some of the best hooks and rhythms of the bunch. It’s the song on the album most likely to turn heads during a small solo acoustic set, or cause a listener to check their playlist, given its nearly playful tones contrasted with an incredibly doleful, innermost narrative.
“Hate the Way You Love Me” delivers the most romantic sentiments on the record, though the verbiage of the title must suggest otherwise. But it’s an outpouring of love from the broken places, with muted but heavy drums and a great picking solo to complement the sweetness. Album closer “I’ll Get Even” promises more to come.
There’s a continuity to Beulah that showcases White’s authenticity as an artist. It’s moody, it’s dark, and forceful in its quiet restraint as much as its high notes and climaxes. Most of all, it is genuine, a sentiment that rings true from White’s own words:
“As soon as I write a song, I start thinking what other people might think of it. I’ve talked to friends about this: What is it about us that makes us do that? Why can’t I just sit on my back porch and sing these songs out into the ether? I don’t have an answer for it yet, but I think it’s just part of who I am. I need that reaction. I need to feel like I’m moving someone in a good way or in a bad way. I need to feel like there’s a connection.”