Sunday, 8 September 2013

Nashville - Josh Rouse

It's rare that you can pinpoint the exact moment that an artist went from being good to great in your eyes. The change is usually gradual, protracted and in a lot of cases, non-existent. It's quite a stunning thing to see the change happen instantly. For me, Josh Rouse's moment came with the release of his fourth album, 1972. I'd known and liked Josh Rouse's music for a while but it wasn't until my Dad played me an advanced copy of 1972 in the car one day that I realised how good he was. It wasn't just straightforward singer/songwriter stuff anymore. He'd taken on board new influences and sounds and made an album with a real groove to it. It was Shuggy Otis by way of Freedy Johnston, yet completely original sounding at the same time. 1972 was a huge leap forward for Josh Rouse. Then, two years later, Nashville came out.

Nashville represents a high point for Josh Rouse and his music, even his website calls this period his 'golden era'. It's a beautifully crafted album that took all the progress and promise of 1972 and exceeded it by adding even more to the mix. Having been born in Nebraska and raised, partially, in Nashville (the home of country music), Rouse would not have been able to escape the music growing up so its only natural that it would be incorporated into his work at some point. This country influence was added to the sound that had come to fruition on 1972 and Rouse's embracing this is reflected in the name of the record. The album's opener “Its the Nighttime” is a good example. There's pedal steel guitar throughout and it works perfectly with the other instruments and the general tone of the track but the song itself is essentially a pop song. The same can be said of the whole album really. Nashville doesn't feel like “Josh Rouse's Country Album”, the approach is more mature than that. Rouse and his producer Brad Jones have seamlessly blended the new sounds and ideas with Rouse's own personal style to create something very different from his previous work. Perhaps its because of this subtle approach that the country element seems to suit him perfectly.

“Winter In The Hamptons” should have been a hit and why it wasn't a worldwide smash will forever remain a mystery to me. A pop-rock masterpiece, it's sing-along chorus and wonderfully catchy melody make it a stand out among Rouse's catalogue. After a built up intro, Rouse's reverb dipped voice and picked acoustic guitar sound fairly sparse in comparison but the space is quickly and explosively filled with other instruments creating a vibrant, upbeat groove. For a song about the bored lives of the rich, the line “The government built our lives/ So put on your hat because the forecast is rain clouds” is eerily prescient given the financial state of the world just a few years later.

One of Nashville's most endearing qualities is the emotional honesty in the songwriting. In “Middle School Frown” for example, Rouse openly depicts himself as a, now remorseful, offender in a betrayal of friendship as a teenager, the song serving as an apology and a way for him to work through his anguish over the incident. Songs like “My Love Has Gone” whilst upbeat and cheerful on the outside contain tales of heartbreak and a dissolving relationship and “Saturday”'s description of the tole that touring can take on a relationship could only have been written by a musician who is suffering through that very specific pain.

Though at times an emotional release for Rouse wrapped in a pop melody, the album is not all sugar coated sadness. The mournful piano ballad “Sad Eyes” starts slow and as the song goes on turns into a foot stomping song of defiance and culminates in a big, beautifully arranged finale. “Sad Eyes” seems to have more of 1972 in it than any other song on Nashville but at the same time it showcases just how much further Rouse has developed the ideas from his earlier record.

For me, Nashville is a near perfect album. It's intelligent, honest, wonderfully produced and is a great showcase for Rouse's talent as a songwriter. The only track on this otherwise flawless album that doesn't quite live up to the lofty heights of the rest is “Why Won't You Tell Me What”. It's not that the track is without merit but it seems oddly stilted in comparison to the other songs on what is an ambitious and beautifully crafted record. It almost feels as if Rouse, realising that he had made a masterpiece, decided to include the track so that he didn't set the bar for future releases too high. Not a wholly unreasonable tactic considering that Nashville would raise fan's expectations to almost unobtainable levels.

I've long thought that the ability to adapt and grow with your art is a sign of a great artist. It shows a sensitivity to whats around you and the ability to reflect that in your art and to Josh Rouse's credit he has never stuck to one sound. After Nashville's release in 2005 Rouse moved to Spain and started a family. These new experiences and surroundings obviously had a big effect on his music as later releases such as El Turista and ...and The Long Vacations have a definite latin feel to them. Though, these changes in style are considerable, for me, the shift in style that lead to Nashville will always be his most memorable. 

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