To some extent, the lyrics of pop music are about emotion, specifically of the romantic variety. Oh sure, there are the occasional forays into intellectual queries, or literary ruminations, or mathematical formulae, but truly even the arithmetic boils down to two formulae: 1+1=2 and, more often, 2-1=1. Given the trite nature of the subject matter, the challenge is to speak of it in a way that proves intelligent, interesting and entertaining.
Though Dallas dude J.D. Whittenburg is better known for his nouveau-country work with his band Trainwreck, his new self-titled solo disc deftly delves into the intricacies of formula No. 2. With stunning vocal dexterity, Whittenburg balances a poetic sensibility with a sharp-edged intelligence, resulting in gorgeous and vexing lyrics such as "'Deny yourself all half things,' he said/I had my chances, it's true/But I never meant to follow through/To deny, to deny, you half thing, you" from the opening track "Half Things," and straightforward declarations such as "I'm afraid to go out/It's always bad news/I don't want to drink too much/I always drink too much" from "Losing My Senses."
But, to make a great record, lyrics are only half the battle; they're only as good as the music in which they're wrapped. This is where Whittenburg's departure from his Trainwreck fare—good as it is—is a welcome venture into new territory. "Half Things," for example, kicks the album off with a poppy, if melancholy, vein, with a simple but punchy piano riff, subtle background strings replacing what normally would be a rhythm guitar part, chunky drums and Whittenburg's ragged voice that echoes Wayne Coyne's off-kilter backwoods vocals. It's catchy as hell, but not as catchy as "Keep Me Honest," which is all pseudo-disco drums and guitar, almost doo-wop background vocals and alt-country boy vocals. Throughout the disc, Whittenburg keeps the listener musically guessing, with unexpected arrangements and Beatles-esque touches, smatterings of different genres that all revolve around a center of thoughtful lyrics and tight-knit songwriting. As if the disco dabbling weren't enough, Whittenburg shifts into slow gear later on with the weepy waltz "Saint Someone," which sports quick, charged guitar chords that punctuate a snaky slide riff. A few songs later, Salim Nourallah's dark, sweet cello intertwines with Whittenburg's melancholy piano in the intro to "Gospel Music," before the whole tune rips into an arena-rock anthem.
I had a poetry professor in college (I know—insert douchebag joke here) once say that art is when form and content match each other with equal brilliance. It's safe to say that with this disc, Whittenburg has produced more than serviceable pop, more than lazy singer-songwriter fare; rather, he's crafted a beautiful form, using vintage keyboards, clever melodies and perfectly chosen chords. But he's also conjured up the content, 12 songs that preach the gospel of the broken-hearted, using just the right words. And the two match each other with equal brilliance. If you dismiss this album just because it doesn't sound like Trainwreck, well, buddy, your math is off.
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