For his third solo release, The Hurting Kind, John Paul White combines his honed songwriting ability with the classic big Nashville sound of the 1960s. The result is impressive, if slightly overwhelming in places.
Many artists pursuing a solo career often struggle to shake off their previous life. Mention of John Paul White frequently switches straight back to his deserved fame as the songwriter of duo, The Civil Wars. But they split in 2012 since when White has established a successful solo career, his previous release Beulah is ample proof. The Hurting Kind is not so much a continuation but a change of direction. Having immersed himself in the classics of the time such as Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Chet Atkins and Bill Porter White sought to to harness their big sound of 1960s Nashville. In his studio at home near Muscle Shoals White co-produced the album with Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and there is no question they have succeeded in creating a very big sound indeed. The production comes at you from all angles.
White also looked to country legends when it came to writing. His co-writers are none other than Whisperin’ Bill Anderson and Bobby Braddock, who wrote the George Jones classic, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. Does that mean White has gone country? Not completely, he hasn’t forsaken his previous life that spanned indie rock, folk and Americana. Into this big beast of an album White has mixed country to concoct a timeless blend.
Opener ‘The Good Old Days’ is a statement of that intent. Driving guitars and strings plough their own course while White’s tenor soars high above. The lyric is White’s very direct take on Make America Great Again. It’s no spoiler to say he’s not convinced.
The production and sound are lavish on ‘I Wish I Could Write You a Song’ co-written with Anderson. As well as accumulating a diverse musical armoury White comes equipped with some powerful backing vocals, this time courtesy of Erin Mae. These two are probably the record’s heaviest hitters in terms of sound and they do leave you feeling slightly breathless.
Perhaps counterintuitively White creates that old country feel to greater effect in his quieter songs. Title track, ‘The Hurting Kind’ is a song about abuse where White sings from the woman’s point of view. With less going on around, the song’s relative simplicity seems more potent, “Oh, what a wicked joke/ That’s getting played on me/ I won your willing heart/And all its cruelty”.
White makes no apology for the constantly gloomy themes to his writing. This is what he wants to write about and he doesn’t mind if it all gets a bit too maudlin. “This Isn’t Gonna End Well’ written with Braddock is a good example. “Who are you fooling?/ A little heaven could be hell/ When you kiss me I can tell this isn’t gonna end well”. White’s duet with Lee Ann Womack deepens the pathos beautifully.
The slower and quieter the song, the closer White gets to his country roots. The first song White’s mother remembers him singing was ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ so Glen Campbell became a great inspiration. While not about Campbell in name, ‘James’ reflects on the heartbreak of Alzheimers through glimpses of his father’s childhood.
‘You Lost Me’ is pure honky tonk and very much of the era White targets. Again, less is more as with a more modest accompaniment of guitar and some lovely pedal steel White hits the spot alongside his musical heroes. He goes even further when his falsetto reaches a yodel in the album’s final track ‘My Dreams Have All Come True’. The title might suggest some happiness at last, but no, “My dreams have all come true/ Like all good nightmares do”.
A risk of revisiting a past sound is producing something that comes across as retro. White avoids this, maybe that’s down to his other influences.‘The Long Way Home’ is right up to date. About leaving (more sadness) there is a rock feel here that could almost add Petty to the list of credits.
White achieves his goal of generating that sumptuous country vibe of fifty years ago by layering the production and surrounding himself with some of the finest musicians and singers around. His choice of co-writers is a masterstroke. But reflecting his own precise, yet lucid songwriting style the songs with fewer layers of that production leave a deeper impression.