An artist’s debut album often shows promise – a combination of heart, a glimmer of an artistic vision, and good but raw and unfinished ideas. What I find in John Muirhead’s first full-length album, “Traveller,” is different – the songwriting comes across as polished, with quality production to match. Granted, it isn’t Muirhead’s first recording – he cut his teeth on a string of singles and EPs, including the recent “Songs from the Quarantine” – but it is rare to hear a singer-songwriter’s first album sound this self-assured and veteran.
Everything about “Traveller” suggests the road. The title, of course, but also the Greetings-from-Asbury-Park picture postcard cover art, and the feeling that these are songs intended to be listened to while out on the highway. The big, anthemic sounds of “Love Will Save Us” and “Tank of Gas” beg to be turned up on a sunny day with the windows down. Other songs, like “North Star,” with its contemplative tone and charming backdrop of crickets in the last verse, sound like the soundtrack to a late-night drive amid interior lights, streetlights, and star light.
The leadoff track, “Masterpiece,” is a highlight of the album. It features well-written lyric lines, one after the other. The opening line – “So your masterpiece was a book they didn’t read” – sets the tone for the protagonist to speak encouragement into the life of the listener. There is much to dig into here for those looking for intriguing wordplay. Muirhead employs some clever alliteration: “Save your shaky steps / Your shallow breath / Sit at the table she sets.” Perhaps the best line in the song is: “You’re falling over / Your composure’s roller-coasting in your head” – if not that line, then perhaps: “A worn out soul, a pair of shoes” would be. Musically speaking, the use of 7ths evoke some mid-tempo parts of The Avett Brothers’ catalog – a good place to start off the album.
“The Space Between Stars,” another stand-out track, gently makes its entrance with a lovely arpeggiated, fingerpicked guitar intro and waltz feel. Muirhead wistfully emotes, “And time seems like nothing to me / But a poorly placed bandage placed over the things / Which we’ve seen / What we’ve been.” This song could be a companion piece to Terra Spencer’s similarly bittersweet “Brick and Mortar,” with a bridge that builds cinematically – fitting for a song that feels like a scene from a movie in itself – and a frantic banjo and booming bass drum help bring the song to a crescendo near the end of the track.
To me, the most outstanding song on “Traveller” is the title track. The plaintive harmonica, reminiscent of Neil Young, lopes in over piano chords, and together they sweep the listener into a song that feels like it could be Muirhead addressing himself – or at least where he found himself in “More Behind” or “I Can Sleep Anywhere.” He returns to his heartening tone from “Masterpiece” as he offers the assurance that “This is not your story / It’s a chapter.” He even references the classic novel “The Old Man and the Sea,” as he sings, “You left home, you’re Santiago / In pages of a novel that you read.”
It is only appropriate that the funds for the recording of this sequence of stories that make up “Traveller” were, in part, raised through socially-distanced concerts that were played in driveways. Muirhead presents here a collection of songs that sound as though they have been road-tested, and that range from heartfelt ballads to boisterous audience sing-alongs. He embraces the road and distance, and yet he longs for home. And he invites his listener to go on the journey with him.
Photo Credit: Alex Lam