Performing Friday, September 22nd at 9:30 pm
Since we last heard from Shawn Mullins on 2008’s honeydew, the Atlanta-based singer/songwriter and bandleader has undergone a series of transformative experiences, leading to a second coming for the veteran artist. Evidence of Mullins’ newfound level of musical and lyrical ambition courses comes through with Light You Up (Vanguard Records, October 12). This captivating new song cycle will likely be viewed as a flat-out revelation even by Mullins’ most fervent fans.
His experiences included an indoctrination into the collaborative creative process by numerous bouts of intensive co-writing, in one instance putting him atop of the country charts via a key contribution to the Zac Brown Band’s “Toes,” marking his third #1 single, following 1999’s “Lullaby” and the 2006 Triple A/Americana chart-topper “Beautiful Wreck.” Further co-writing yielded nine of the 11 songs on the new album, which Mullins believes represents the strongest, most expressive writing of his distinguished career. All of this creative activity was topped off by the birth of Shawn’s first child, Murphy, in August of 2009.
“Even in the hospital with our new son, something changed for me,” Mullins recalls. “It was almost like nothing else mattered. It feels that different now. And at the same time, co-writing has become a sort of community for me.”
These two crucial realizations are at the center of Light You Up.The new albumreaches out, boldly and magnanimously, into present-day existence—and at times like these, like-minded individuals can find strength in numbers. In this sense, the process that brought the new album to life parallels its underlying theme of banding together. Light You Up is an ensemble album through and through, the result of creative interaction from the writing through the recording. Tracking began with two weeks of playing and recording live at Mullins’ rustic Georgia cabin with his core musicians—drummer Gerry Hansen, bassist Patrick Blanchard and guitarist Davis Causey . The project continued with the addition of Hammond B3 organ and other keyboards from Marty Kearns, pedal steel from Dan Dugmore and Clay Cook, saxes from Tom Ryan, a string quartet and additional percussion.
The album opens with the devastating one-two punch of the cinematic “California”—which instantly takes its place alongside such latter-day Cali classics as Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” David & David’s “Welcome to the Boomtown,” Beck’s “Earthquake Weather” and Mullins’ own chart-topper “Lullaby”—and the smoldering, zeitgeist-capturing title track. In terms of their dramatic payloads, these two songs are of a piece, delving into the tattered yet resilient heart of the American Dream. The California setting, to which Mullins returns on “Tinseltown,” functions as a microcosm of our collective journey from wide-eyed innocence through bitter experience to the possibility of personal and collective renewal.
Shawn’s friend and collaborator, Nashville pro Chuck Cannon (whose songs have been cut by the likes of Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson), co-wrote “California” and “Light You Up” (the first single). “Chuck’s one of the world’s best songwriters and very old-school in his approach.” Mullins marvels.
“A lot of songwriters will work on a song for a few hours, and when it’s pretty good they’ll call it quits. When Cannon and I are working, we won’t leave a song unfinished. There’s a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning until we know the song is right.‘California’ and ‘Light You Up’ are very special to me; they both hint at a sort of New Babylon and where we are in America right now.”
Cannon also co-wrote the Civil War narrative/plea for peace “Catoosa County” and the topical lament “Can’t Remember Summer.” The latter is a five-way collaboration with Edie Carey, Rebecca Lovell, and Toad the Wet Sprocket leader Glen Phillips, who’s Mullins’ lone co-writer on “Murphy’s Song.” The 22-year-old Taos native Max Gomez joined Shawn in the creation of “I Knew a Girl” and the closing “Love Will Find a Way,” as well as being one of four contributors to “Tinseltown,” along with Chuck Jones and Jeff Trott, while Shawn’s longtime drummer Gerry Hansen, who doubled as co-producer of Light You Up, co-wrote “You Make It Better.”
Mullins borrowed the inspiring “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” from co-writers Cannon (who contributes acoustic and backing vocals to the track) and Phil Madeira, and he revisits “No Blue Sky,” which originally appeared on the self-titled 2003 LP from the Thorns, a harmony trio comprising Mullins, Pete Droge and Matthew Sweet, the latter bringing his signature layer-cake harmonies to the rousing sing-along choruses of “California.”
“California” tells the story of a country boy from Mississippi and a hippie chick from the Pacific Northwest who first catch sight of each other in a SoCal freeway traffic jam. “Her stereo was blaring Dylan/The Bootleg Sessions/And ‘Oh the Times They Are A-Changin’’/Made a pretty good impression/She looked over and caught him smiling/Under the California setting sun/They fell in love on the 101.” From there, the lyric follows the descent of the young lovers into the dark underside of what began as their shared California idyll in what amounts to a contemporary fable about the soul-killing temptations of the material world.
The thematic thread runs seamlessly into “Light You Up,” with its unsettling spoken verses—“Everybody wants the real deal/Everybody wants to cop a good feel/Everybody wants more money/Everybody wants a taste of your honey”—and intense choruses, as scorching as the San Fernando Valley in August, as Mullins reaches upward to break into his thrilling falsetto: “I just want to light you up/Light you up like a fire/I just want to turn you on/Turn you on and take you higher.” Here, as elsewhere, a deeper perspective is embedded in the song’s bridge, as Mullins sings, “Yeah this old world can bring you down/Turn your smile into a frown/Break your heart and make you sad/Drive you stark raving mad.” Finally, the narrative drops away as the band launches into a surging extended rave-up, further deepening the song’s emotional resonance.
“Some of the songs are set in L.A.,” Mullins explains. “They’re not all lyrically about Los Angeles or Hollywood, but there’s a California theme that runs through the album. Even ‘Murphy’s Song’ has this Bakersfield sound to it, with Dan Dugmore’s classic pedal steel guitar.” Dugmore was the steel player on a lot of early James Taylor recordings as well as Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.”
Three songs later, the band pumps out a punchy midtempo groove, and Causey’s shimmering guitar licks conjure up a smoggy sunset, setting the scene for “Tinseltown,” with its memorable payoff, “I don’t wanna go downtown tonight/The neon burns just a little too bright/I just wanna watch the sun melt down/Over Tinseltown.”
The album is overflowing with perfect rhymes, telling detail and underlying intimations. This is uncommonly literate stuff, striking in its insightfulness and compassion. Delivered by Mullins in his companionable baritone, as lived-in and textured as your favorite pair of faded jeans, amid the relentless rhythms, churning Hammond organ runs and swooping guitar lines, every line is absolutely spellbinding, adding incrementally to the album’s gripping intensity. “I felt like I needed to get the listener’s attention with this record,” says Shawn. He can consider that a mission accomplished.