My Stupid Heart

Shawn Mullins

Sugar Hill Records / Rounder, 2015

http://www.shawnmullins.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/25/2015

Plenty of top-notch songwriters are less than great singers, and vice versa—how many times have you heard a terrific voice wrap itself around a lyric that sounds like a Mad Lib built out of clichés? That’s one of the things that sets Shawn Mullins apart: yes, he’s an excellent songwriter… but he might be an even better singer.

Once upon a time, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s guitarist/producer Jerry Jennings described her voice as “an invitation to intimacy,” and Mullins’ voice has many of the same qualities: honesty, authenticity, vulnerability, and a certain fearlessness. On his ninth studio album My Stupid Heart, those qualities are amplified by the warm, rich production from Lari White (country singer/actress and answer to the trivia question “Who played the pretty woman in the pickup truck who gave Tom Hanks directions at the end of Cast Away?”). Making it a true family affair, White’s husband Chuck Cannon—writer of hits for her and several other country notables—co-writes many of these tracks with Mullins.

The album opens strong with “The Great Unknown,” a novelistic tune that turns a seedy bar into the nexus of all humanity. It’s buoyed by a terrific lyric and shimmering, echoey slide guitar that’s performed by ageless session man Dan Dugmore (whose work graced many early James Taylor hits), but feels eerily like Snuffy Walden’s my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Friday Night Lights TV series theme (itself derived from Explosions In The Sky’s Friday Night Lights movie soundtrack). The guitar’s silvery, majestic feel creates an instant emotional connection with a lyric about the loneliness of existence (“They got a mirror back behind the whiskey shelves / Where we don’t dare look back at ourselves”) and the power of simple perseverance, anchored by an opening line that repeats at the very end: “It’s Friday night and I’m back again.”

Next up, Cannon’s “It All Comes Down To Love” showcases Mullin’s versatility as a vocalist, as he mixes spoken (some would call them “rapped”) verses with a soaring chorus, mirroring the structure and feel of his one big hit, 1998’s “Lullaby.” It’s a familiar approach that still works well just because of the way Mullins uses his voice; when he raps, it’s relaxed and casual, like a conversation, so that the sung verses feel like he’s just talking a little louder, emphasizing a point he’s making.  

From that opening one-two punch, this album—genuine Americana in its mixing and melding of essential American musical traditions—offers a little of this and a little of that. The topical “Ferguson” embellishes a haunting electrified blues dirge with hints of gospel. The title track is a typically self-effacing acoustic ballad, a serial romantic crash-and-burner’s lament (“My stupid heart believes the lies / The poets tell, surprise surprise.”)

The second half of the album finds the Nashville influence ascendant, with mandolins dressing up “Roll On By” and “Sunshine,” while “Gambler’s Heart”  and “Never Gonna Let Her Go” offer both serious and playful takes on essential country-folk themes. Mixed into this sequence, “Go And Fall” presents a rather atypical latter-day Mullins tune, primarily electric with some fairly rangy guitar soloing, a spooky number about a guy who’s just realized he made a big mistake falling in love.

Closer “Pre-Apocalyptic Blues” plants a sloppy red cherry on top of this musical sundae, parodying the survivalist mindset with support from a rascally horn section and Matt Rollings’ barrelhouse piano-playing. It’s a tune that manages to be simultaneously high-concept, lowbrow, and a ton of fun.

Through the years Mullins has proven himself to be a reliably engaging singer-songwriter whose albums always entertain and sometimes also impress. My Stupid Heart is among his finer albums of the new century, full of tunes that manage to be smart, charismatic, and friendly all at once, like the host at that party you weren’t sure you were up for, but now that you’re there, you don’t want to leave.

Rating: B+

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© 2015 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sugar Hill Records / Rounder, and is used for informational purposes only.