John Fullbright, The Liar, Blue Dirt Records
I saw John Fullbright perform in Belfast in 2013, shortly after the release of his remarkable Grammy-nominated debut album, From the Ground Up. We were mesmerized by his musicianship, the power of the songs and his smouldering voice, with its impressive range. One song in particular tore me up, High Road, which appeared on his next album, Songs, released the following year. It’s about the saddest song you’ll ever hear, but such is its musical and lyrical power, you never tire of hearing it.
As we left that night, we were certain we’d hear a lot more from him and that the world would sit up and take notice. Yet after that next album, we’d hear nothing more from Mr. Fullbright for the next eight years. He still made music in public with different local Oklahoma bands but has pretty much kept a low profile.
But with The Liar, John Fullbright is back, big time. A set of twelve musically diverse and lyrically astute songs in his own inimitable style, largely piano-driven, with those big gospel chords he – and we – love.
For this album, he’s assembled a band of Oklahomans – “the usual suspects,” says Fullbright – who add depth and variety to the songs and with whom Fullbright considered his collaborators, rather than simply backing band. (Jesse Aycock, Aaron Boehler, Paul Wilkes, Stephen Lee, and Paddy Ryan, and a few more friends).
The album kicks of with Bearden 1645, and we’re in familiar Fullbright territory, with piano, harmonica and pedal steel accompanying clever lyrics and that winsome Fullbright voice. It’s a piece of whimsy to get us going, a kind of paean to the piano and his relationship to it.
After that we get a variety of songs that are mostly about failed love, all wonderfully different musically: Paranoid Heart starts with a nicely picked guitar, before moving into a full band piece complete with lead guitar solo whereas Where We Belong has a lovely old-timey vibe featuring fiddle and accordion.
These are not run-of-the-mill love songs, though, Fullbright weaves in smart lyrics to tell his stories – Lucky, which again features those big piano chords is a story about a young woman whose hope for love turns sour, but it then turns in to a lament about the emptiness of meaningless relationships: “There’s a darkness in a broken heart that fights off every dawn.”
But as well as the love song-stories there seems to be a fair amount of confessional in this album. In Stars, just Fullbright’s gospel-echoing piano and his searching, plaintive vocals, we seem to hear a man moving – perhaps with some sadness – from faith to unfaith. At the song’s beginning, he looks at the stars and tells us that he has “felt something in the eyes of God,” who “told me he loved me, told me not to be afraid of dying.”
But then one day he looks up and the sky was empty, “and the world kept on turning, but I was forever alone.” At the end the only hope seems to be in love itself, because Fullbright has learned “that love burns brightly like stars up in heaven to remind us that love means that nobody dies alone.”
It’s a powerful song for sure, and for me, maybe even sadder – in a different way – than High Road.
Fullbright opens up a little more in Unlocked Doors, a lovely slice of Americana with some sweet pedal steel. He confesses to having “Lost my way, gone astray (but I’m here to stay)” and that there have been “scores of unlocked doors I lost myself in front of.” It seems, however, “I’m always rescued in the end.” Yet the future looks uncertain: “There will always be a brighter dawn, There will always be a darker night.”
As with all the best lyricists, it’s never straightforward to pin down exact meanings or say what is autobiographical and what is not, and the album title, The Liar, creates even more uncertainty. What is certain, however, is that John Fullbright is a major song-writing and musical talent, with a voice of great versatility, quality and power.
If you get the chance to see him perform, don’t hesitate. You’ll probably get the chance to hear the final song of the album, Poster Child, which I can only imagine would be electric performed live. I can well imagine him getting the audience involved in this jazz era, classic-sounding song singing “hey-ee-ay-ee-ay-ee-yah” at the tops of their voices.