Eight years may be a long interval between solo albums, but in the case of John Paul White’s ‘Beulah’, it was frankly worth waiting for.
White, of course, hasn’t been idle in the intervening period. His recent recording collaborations include work with Jason Isbell, Candi Staton, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, among others. It also goes without saying he was one-half of the four-time Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars, partnering with Joy Williams to create two outstanding albums before their much-publicised parting in 2014.
Beulah is a diverse collection of swampy southern rock, folk balladry and dark acoustic pop, songs that came unbidden to White, who wasn’t entirely welcoming of them at the time. “Honestly, I tried to avoid them, but then I realised the only way I was going to get rid of them was if I wrote them down. I got my phone out, and I’d sing these little bits of melody, then put it away and move on. Eventually, I got to a place where it was a roar in my head, and that pissed me off. Then one day I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to go write a song.’ She was as surprised as I was. I went and wrote probably eight songs in three days. It was like turning on a faucet.”
The album, titled after a longtime family nickname and a reference to William Blake’s “place deep in the collective spiritual unconscious”, was produced by Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and White and recorded in Muscle Shoals at the renowned FAME Studios and White’s own Single Lock Studios.
While resonating with southern authenticity, there’s a blatant darkness that runs throughout the album, the short opening track Black Leaf setting the scene with a lament for a metaphoric ‘lost love’. It leads almost seamlessly into the southern-rock lament What’s So while The Once And Future Queen is a send-off to a former lover with the admission “That’s ok, I never really loved you anyway”.
The folky and acoustic-picked Make You Cry offers no respite as White wishes emotional pain on his subject. The pace, if not the mood, is lifted with the driving acoustic-rock Fight For You while Hope I Die bounces around a repeating guitar riff and a personal wish to die rather than find someone new. The country swing feel of I’ve Been Over This Before is set in the midst of a relationship argument, while the admission of The Martyr is an invitation for further suffering… “these are the wounds that I will not let heal.”
The sweet-sounding acoustic picking that underpins the introduction of Hate the Way You Love Me hints at the contradiction expressed in the song…”I wouldn’t have it any other way; heaven knows a sinner needs a saint”. It’s my favourite track on the album and perhaps a beacon of optimism in what’s quite a cathartic collection of songs. The collection concludes with more angst, directed through the threatening and atmospheric ballad I’ll Get Even.
In summary, bright, breezy and uplifting this album certainly isn’t, nonetheless I was taken back with how much of an enjoyable listening experience it is. There’s an immediacy in the production such that it feels like White is singing in the same room as you, while the music and lyrics express emotion on a somewhat cinematic scale. As you get drawn into White’s troubled relationships described throughout the album, you can’t help but empathise. Upon emerging, it feels like you’ve been on a journey alongside the artist, the telltale sign of a remarkable record.
Beulah is released via Single Lock Records on 19th August
Photo Credit: Allister Ann