Christopher Paul Stelling: Itinerant Arias
Anti- Records – 5 May 2017
Born in Daytona Beach and based in Brooklyn, Christopher Paul Stelling is the very definition of a contemporary troubadour, always on the road delivering his songs of political insight and personal experience. Typically backed by bass, drums, horn and violins, Stelling recorded Itinerant Arias, his fourth album in a Connecticut cabin (his debut was in a funeral parlour) in a week between shows, opening up with the rippling fingerpicked Destitute, his light but grainy vocals playing over upbeat lyrics about how things can only get better.
Songs can come from a wide range of unlikely inspirations and the dusty rasp of the gradually swelling, Oh, River was written in response to a Groningen museum’s request for songs inspired by paintings for an exhibition. Stelling opting for Hugo Simberg’s ‘Finnish Elegy. Meanwhile, neighbouring Belgium spawned the offbeat shuffle folk blues Cost of Doing Business, a musing on the Faustian bargain (“Ain’t it funny what a man will do to be another brick in the tower?”) penned in an Oostende hotel room after passing out from lack of sleep after getting from one gig to the next.
That’s nothing, however, compared to A Day or A Lifetime, a stream of consciousness lyric involving two dusty books, a parade of soldiers and three white teeth, the latter apparently lying in a pool of blood in the street when he woke up on a New Orleans floor with no idea of how he got there.
Politics and the state of the world feed into several numbers. Sleep Baby Sleep is a dark, violin shaded lullaby inspired by the Calais refugee camps and the attitudes of the world’s governments who “talk about Jesus like they don’t even see us”, Stelling and the band making the last ferry out for a week as the fires of revolt burned in the background.
The semi-rapped Badguys with its loping urgent rhythm and scraping violin is, he says, about the “terrified little children, hell-bent on destroying the world” and the homegrown varieties “faces painted up like skeletons” set to oppose them as he pessimistically sings how “bad guys always win.”
It’s thematically linked to the howled Stranger Blues with its neurotic electric guitars and crunching drum beat as the paranoia takes hold, which makes you wonder how you survive all this. Stelling’s answer is simple, summed up in the title You Have to Believe, a simple folk blues with a circling acoustic guitar about letting go of grief and fear that bears testament to his faith. Likewise, on Red Door, a speak-sing number built around three narratives, a ship’s captain faced with scuttling the ship rather than asking his crew to face a crazed enemy, a mentally disturbed woman on a roof and a young kid playing Russian roulette with his father’s gun, he sings “the only way to win is bowing out”, but at the very end finds the light of hope shining.
The album ends with the soothing, delicate guitar-led melody of A Tempest, another song that talks of metaphorical rising waters and coming apocalyptic floods and how, if the ship on which we sail founders, then we need to keep the fear at bay and, as the hymnal closing refrain has it “if we go, we go together, even if one stays behind, chase those memories cross the water, heaven knows what we might find.” Stelling sees the storm coming, but his songs are there to provide a bridge over troubled waters.
Out now on Anti-