Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Ellis Paul: “55” (2023) CD Review

If you’ve been watching Ellis Paul’s online concerts the last few years, or have actually gotten out of your home to see some live performances (which is always preferable), you’ve been treated to some excellent new material. In fact, there were so many new songs that at one point there was talk of a double album in the works. Well, the new album has arrived, and Ellis Paul narrowed the choices down to fit onto a single disc. And that means the songs included are those he considers the very best of the many he had to pick from. The album is titled 55, after a song he wrote about turning that age (move over, Adele). It features all original music, written or co-written by Ellis Paul. And the liner notes booklet features artwork by Ellis Paul for each of the tracks. Joining him on this album are Mark Dann on bass and electric guitar, Radoslav Lorkovic on piano and keyboards, and Eric Parker on drums, along with a few special guests on various tracks.

The album opens with “Cosmos,” a song with a gentle, rather sweet sound and vibe. On this song he sings, “I’m one of the flock/Riding this rock/Across the cosmos,” lines that remind us that we are all in the same boat, or on the same rock, that we are all facing essentially the same things. And the music seems to invite us to take part in the same dance, to see the divine in those who are around us. “I’ve seen the divine/You are divine/I’ve seen the divine in you.” That’s followed by “Who You Are,” which features Abbie Gardner (of Red Molly) on both dobro and backing vocals. Their voices blend together wonderfully. “Throw the maps out/Break the compass/Chase your own star/Find direction/In the darkness/To remember who you are.” It does seem easy to get lost these days, doesn’t it? There is so much distracting us, demanding our attention, and so sometimes we need reminders. Sometimes we need to close our eyes, to turn inward, to remember who we are. This is a beautiful song. It was co-written by Abbie Gardner.

“The Gift” is one that Ellis Paul has been playing for a while. It is about a gift he received from fellow singer and songwriter Patty Griffin at a time when he was feeling low, a box filled with ordinary objects endowed with special meaning and significance. In a larger sense, it’s a song about friendship, about perspective, and about how simple gestures can help us get through the tough times. “But that’s the place where my life broke down/I didn’t know when the trouble would end/Or if the light would begin.” People who contributed to the making of this album will receive their own gift from Ellis Paul, a box containing items similar to those he received from Patty Griffin. Then In “Be The Fire,” Ellis Paul sings, “When it’s time to love, love your strongest/With the kind of strength that comes from being honest/Life is short/Life is long/We get it right/We get it wrong.” This is a song about finding the best within yourself even in the most difficult of times. The last several years have been difficult for many of us, but even in these sorts of times, we might find that we provide our own greatest obstacles. So we must have the power to overcome them, right? “And if the darkness comes to take you/Be the fire.” This song was co-written by Kristian Bush.

My personal favorite of the new songs is “Holy.” It is such a beautiful song. And it is so hopeful, though as we listen and realize what he is planning, we discover that the character of this song is likely doomed. And yet even then we feel that hope, that optimism, that great capacity for life, and we feel that he is making the right choices, no matter what they may result in. There is such joy, such life in this character, and in Ellis Paul’s delivery, that I find myself in tears whenever I listen to this song. Yes, it’s that good. In fact, I believe it to be one of the best songs he’s ever recorded. “He says, ‘It’s holy/The sound of it’s holy/Holy to me.’” That’s followed by “Gold In California.” Though Ellis Paul has never resided in California, he has often been inspired by the state, and has written several songs about it. In this song, he mentions as much, opening the song with these lines: “I love it like it’s my home town/But I wasn’t born here.” There is a good deal of cheer to this song. Big Sur has certainly been a source of inspiration, and he mentions that town here. Might he eventually move to this state? He ends the song with these lines: “If I ever lay roots down/This is my sacred ground.” Seth Glier provides those great backing vocals on this track. “Gold In California” was co-written by Kristian Bush.

The album’s title track, “55,” is another of my personal favorites. I am now in my fifties, and wondering how that could be. In this song, Ellis Paul sings, “And me, I’m 55/Just trying to figure out/How I’m still alive.” The song mentions many things that were prominent at one point during our lives and are now largely gone, including 8-track tapes, fax machines, and Sears and Roebuck catalogues. And yet we are still here. This song came out of the pandemic, and there is a verse about how it shut everything down. That is probably the song’s most powerful verse, in part because in it he mentions one of his idols, John Prine, who did not survive the pandemic: “They’ve cancelled every show through Fall/Turn the bus ‘round, boys, it’s over/This virus don’t care/If you’ve got mouths to feed/Or about songs you’re singing/While the whole world’s bleeding/But you get to stay and John Prine’s leaving/Who’s in charge of the order?” These lines also strike me each time I listen to this song: “You fall in love/You fall in lust/Fall to pieces/Fall to dust/The only thing I’ve come to trust/Is the sun’s gonna shine come morning.” Mark Easley joins Ellis Paul on acoustic guitar on this one, and Laurie MacAllister provides some excellent backing vocals. Laurie MacAllister also provides wonderful vocal work on “Everyone Knows It Now,” a song that begins with some pretty work on guitar. This is a song that feels designed to make you feel good. It is gentle and loving and soothing. “Oh youth/You always chase the sun/If we fly too close on the run/We can start again from the ashes.”

“Tattoo Lady” is a character song, this one told from the perspective of the tattooed lady in a carnival. The song describes some of the tattoos, and those bits of art help to tell her story, or perhaps they are her story. “There is a serpent/Drawn with the current/Wrapping around my calf, my thigh.” Then in the middle of the song, we hear briefly from the barker, introducing her. Laurie MacAllister again adds another layer to this song with her vocal work. “Tattoo Lady” is followed by “Sometimes Trouble Is Good.” There is a great energy to this song. Here he sings, “You gotta believe/Change is coming your way/Just like it should/Sometimes trouble is good,” lines that of course call to mind the spirit of John Lewis. This nation is still in great need of meaningful change, and on a personal level, many of us are also in need of meaningful change. Seth Glier provides more excellent backing vocal work on this track. “Sometimes Trouble Is Good” was co-written by Will Chapman.

“When Angels Fall” is a slightly older song that was written when Ellis Paul was working on The Storyteller’s Suitcase. The song did not make it onto that album, and apparently it was originally not going to be on this one either, but I am so glad that he decided to include it. It is a powerful and moving song, another of the album’s best. It addresses one of the biggest problems facing the nation now, that of gun violence, particularly shootings at schools. It is a song that asks, “Are you gonna fight?/Fight for your guns?/Or fight for your children?/Your children?” That is the choice, honestly. I personally would like to see an end to the Second Amendment, since no one seems to know what it means anyway, but for now we need at least some serious legislation to make it as difficult as possible for people to attain such weapons. “When angels fall/Does anybody hear them at all?” The album concludes with “A Song To Say Goodbye,” which was co-written by Clarence Easterday. A fitting final track, eh? This is a more intimate song, one about two people and the music that is left. And that’s what it always comes down to, doesn’t it? “A fiddle cries/Collides with the night/And I can almost touch you/If I could only make this right.”

CD Track List

  1. Cosmos
  2. Who You Are
  3. The Gift
  4. Be The Fire
  5. Holy
  6. Gold In California
  7. 55
  8. Everyone Knows It Now
  9. Tattoo Lady
  10. Sometimes Trouble Is Good
  11. When Angels Fall
  12. A Song To Say Goodbye

55 is scheduled to be released on June 9, 2023, but was made available early to those who have joined Ellis Paul’s Patreon page (my copy arrived on March 16th). By the way, there was also talk of a vinyl release at some point, and I hope that happens.

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