Style: Smooth R&B/pop/soul; compare to James Taylor, Bill Withers
Top tracks: "El Camino," "Jesus," "Learned a Lot" "Violin"
Amos Lee has been through hell and caught a few glimpses of heaven, and he sings about the journey on his fourth album Mission Bell. Although the biographical details are lacking, the cataclysm sounds overwhelming, with lyrics like "been headed for a breakdown" and "face down on the bedroom floor." There are hints that his woes may include the collapse of career dreams, long-term relationships, and self-esteem. What is more clear is that Mission Bell sounds like one of the most honest and uplifting spiritual wrestling matches recorded during the past few years. If his life is shattered, Amos Lee still manages to hobble with a shepherd's crook as a walking stick. And that crook may make all the difference.
Lee has always possessed a magical voice comprised of equal parts James Taylor folkie warmth and Bill Withers genial soul. The new album will still win him points with the Starbucks/PBS crowd, but he bites down a little harder on several tracks, most notably on "Jesus," the album's pivotal song, which finds him pairing a stark plea for help with a gritty gospel vocal. It's soul music in all the best senses of the term, a desperate cry from the depths.
Roots music stalwarts Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, and Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) put in some memorable cameos, but this is Lee's show, and he wrestles poetically and forcefully with the concepts of a loving God and a life in tatters. Lovely, pensive opener "El Camino" finds him with plenty of time to pray and waste away, while soulful ballad "Violin" captures him midway between a breakdown and a spiritual breakthrough.
Lee's songwriting occasionally succumbs to clichés, to easy or forced rhymes, and there are a few moments of dismay when the angst-by-the-numbers approach swamps the very personal, painful narrative. But it's a minor quibble. Mission Bell is Lee's best album; what surely sounds like his dark night of the soul set to sympathetic musical accompaniment (courtesy of fine roots band Calexico) and supple, soaring vocals.
"Nobody told me that livin' was easy / I ain't livin' in fear anymore" he sings on "Learned a Lot," one of the album's best songs of rueful regret and hard-won hope. Even if everything has been burned away, Amos Lee has apparently discovered that there is something shining in the charred ruins.
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