Christopher Paul Stelling’s third album comes steeped in the traditions of American roots music, located somewhere in the wilds of the mythical American frontier. With arrangements based predominantly around Stelling’s intricate fingerpicking on a battered old Gibson acoustic, there are scatterings of folk, country, blues and blue-grass. Delicate touches of strings, brass and harmonica add atmosphere and depth to otherwise simple arrangements. However, that is not to say Labor Against Waste is a sparse sounding album. Stelling easily fills out the sound without these flourishes. With a gravelly, earnest voice and bright cascades of fingerpicking guitar, Stelling carries real presence.
A relentless touring musician, life on the road plays an inevitable role in Stelling’s lyrics. Whether it’s “lost, set adrift on a red clay, unmarked road” in Scarecrow, “stranded on a dusty lonesome desert highway” in Revenge or trying to “get across the great divide” in Horse, the ‘American West’ provides a backdrop for songs about life lessons, morality and the pressures of modern life.
Many of the tracks on the album express a strong sense of optimism in the face of hardship. Hard Work, in particular, carries the mantra: “I just work real hard try not to complain […] and I know my work is never done till I can see the good in everyone.” However, the despair threatens to overwhelm this positivity on Death of Influence. Starting like the opening credits of a Spaghetti Western, it slips into a murderous and apocalyptic warning against immorality. The language evokes images of the biblical destruction and the closing refrain feels like it owes a debt to Masters of War: “I’ve seen the eyes of Satan in the powerful elite, seen the eyes of compassion in the ones who killed in wars, […] seen the eyes of liberty in a bible torn and burned.” There is the impression that these tracks reflect the internal spiritual battle Stelling himself is waging.
Horse could easily be a cut from Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. A foot-stomping blues which strays into bluegrass territory, it is one of the album’s highlights. With lines like: “I dragged that horse to water, you know he wouldn’t drink, I shot him in the shallows before I had the time to think” and “my baby got the devil in him, oh he got the good Lord in him too” – it is an absurdist parable that wouldn’t feel out of place in Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The dry wit and one-liners recall Subterranean Homesick Blues or Folsom Prison Blues. “My daddy always told me not to play around with matches, got me ahold of a flame thrower, how that fire catches.”
The opening line of opening track Warm Enemy, “time don’t mean nothing if you waste it”, is a refrain that is repeated throughout. Labor Against Waste is an album that rallies against losing sight of what’s important in life amidst the distractions of careers, mortgages and pensions. The aforementioned ‘warm enemy’ appears to represent the strangulating comfort and conformity Stelling rebels against.
Castle is a dissection of the ways in which the conventions of modern society have become a metaphorical prison, trapping us all within a constructed illusion of normality. Hiding behind these castle walls we have stopped enjoying simple pleasures, appreciating what little we have and making the most of the present – stopped living. “May there be no remorse here for the patience that you have shown save the satisfaction of knowing your house is made of stone, but who’re you going and kidding yourself man, you ain’t got no house at all.” Stelling urges us to instead “sleep under the sky tonight well beyond these castle walls.”
Too Far North is a lament for a friend tied too firmly to life on the road to adjust to normal life, with sadly fatal consequences. It’s a beautiful song, and the line, “it’s better to die with a spark in your eye than a weak dying breath and a groan,” is another poignant representation of a continuous thread that runs throughout the album.
Labor Against Waste unquestionably wears its influences plainly on its sleeve. Whilst there’s nothing wholly original about Stelling’s style, the lyrics are complex and thought-provoking and Stelling is a truly exceptional guitarist. Although he isn’t necessarily exploring any new territory, Stelling is successful in updating American roots traditions and capturing the present zeitgeist. As he urges us to, “breathe it out, lay your burdens down to rest”, it’s hard not to pay attention.
Review by: Mark Roberts
Performing ‘Hard Work’ Live
Labor Against Waste is out now via Anti-
Order it via Amazon