A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma troubadour John Fullbright confidently squashes any notion of a sophomore slump on his way to crushing your heart with “Songs,” the simply titled and simply splendid follow-up to his Grammy-nominated studio debut “From the Ground Up.”
His 2012 breakout transformed the Bearden denizen into an up-and-coming global Americana star, and Fullbright has acknowledged “that pressure, man, it can be a strangler if you let it.”
“You know, there’s as much pressure as I choose for there to be. And I wrestled that bull and decided it wasn’t worth it. And I relieved myself of that pressure,” he told me in a recent interview. “Not to say that I don’t care what happens to this record. I want everyone to like it. I have an ego just like anyone. But I’m certainly not gonna expect anything from it, like I didn’t expect anything from the first one – and it did pretty well.”
The singer-songwriter, 26, indeed sounds like a man who has triumphed over – or maybe just shrugged off — expectations. After the runaway success of “From the Ground Up,” he could have picked the most famous songwriting partners, the fanciest studios and the gaudiest production values; instead, Fullbright again penned his “Songs” mostly solo, returned to Norman’s 115 Recording and with co-producer/engineer Wes Sharon crafted a stripped-down collection that sounds mellower, more mature and more melancholy.
“Songs” doesn’t boast a bluesy boot-stomper like “Gawd Above” or a carnival-esque fable like “Fat Man,” but it opens with the jangling guitars and sprightly whistling of “Happy,” in which Fullbright pleads “Somebody tell me what’s so bad about happy,” but can’t quite manage to sound that way.
“Write a song/Write a song about the very song you sing,” Fullbright croons in his surprisingly smooth drawl on “Write a Song,” the kind of songwriter’s lament that might come across as self-indulgent whining if it wasn’t so assured, relatable and honest. Likewise, it’s just John and his acoustic guitar on the folky “Keeping Hope Alive,” and the barebones production starkly lays bare the hard-earned wisdom of the lyrics.
Released Tuesday on Fullbright’s own Blue Dirt Records (via Thirty Tigers), “Songs” is dominated by gorgeously rendered and emotionally evocative songs about love and loss, from the piano ballads “She Knows” and “When You’re Here” to the guitar numbers “The One That Lives Too Far” and “Until You Were Gone.”
Fullbright channels Oklahoma songwriting legend Jimmy Webb with “High Road,” a heart-ripping story-song about a hard-scrabble farm couple that feels new yet timeless, resplendent with vivid details and universal resonance.
He also calls to mind Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly with his classic-sound rockers “Going Home” and “Never Cry Again,” which blessedly brighten up the proceedings. Almost as if to assure listeners – or perhaps himself – Fullbright closes his second collection of “Songs” with a simple yet hopeful piano ballad called “Very First Time,” as in “I feel alright for the very first time.”
Hopefully, it won’t be the last time we hear from Fullbright, whose singleminded devotion to songcraft is desperately needed in the modern music business.