There were times that I struggled to find the words to describe the raw, beautiful craft that is the storytelling of southern Indiana’s Stephen Wilson Jr.; each of the 22 songs on his debut album ‘søᴎ of dad’ are truthful, reflective and a real necessary listen. I should know, I’ve been lost in his hypnotically rhythmic lyrics since 9th May 2022, my first Stephen Wilson Jr. show, at London’s Roundhouse when he opened for Brothers Osborne. And Spotify knows I’ve been playing ‘Year To Be Young 1994’ ever since.
Wilson Jr. has vocals that sound like a 70’s Springsteen and an intellectual insight into how images and words dance together, all wrapped up in a wall of gut-clenching sound that reverberates around heart, body and soul. I’ve never craved percussion and strings in quite this way.
What do you know, I can find some words. I just had to press pause on one of the best country albums of 2023 for a minute.
Family features throughout ‘søᴎ of dad,’ released five years to the day since his father passed away suddenly. The haunting ballad, ‘Father’s Son’, takes centre stage, placed midway through the album, with Stephen Wilson stepping forward for the last thirty seconds of this beautiful tribute.
‘Grief Is Only Love’ follows, which stilled the Royal Albert Hall audience earlier this year when Wilson Jr. opened the Highways Festival in London, on a day he was grieving the loss of a dear family member. The driving rhythm of the song takes a painful subject beyond the agony to a transformative experience, reminding us, “to live not only for those who are gone, but for themselves”. I can testify that Wilson Jr.’s hope that the song is an outlet for grief is met.
Two particular ballads about family are a gorgeous listen. ‘Henry’ is a song for his stepson, “his son, his pride and joy…his boy” while Wilson Jr.’s grandad was the inspiration for ‘All The Wars From Now On’ the letter waltz-like in the melody and storytelling. Authentic is just the beginning for this impactful and imaginative storyteller.
If you’ve been lucky enough to see one of Wilson Jr.’s incredible live shows in the UK over the last 18 months – either with Brothers Osborne, at Highways Festival or Black Deer Festival, or on tour with Drake White – then you’ll have likely heard several of these songs before, including ‘Holler From The Holler’ a wildly infectious tribute to home (a holler is a valley as well as a shout) hosts the universal lyric, ‘bored as a two by four, fighting just for fun’ which resonates with anyone who’s fought hard growing up in a place with few prospects. The juxtaposition of the lyric, ‘I was kind of quiet as a kid growing up’ against the backdrop of an electrifying fence of steel sound sends shivers down the spine.
‘Billy’ is an upbeat ruckus, referring to a state of mind with a take-me-or-leave-me attitude, while the slower-paced ‘Hometown’ a heartland medley of contrasting images and echoing repetitions, sounds like an intentional nod to Springsteen’s My Hometown.
And then there’s the new songs, released as singles over the last few months. ‘Mighty Beast’ is a huge sound of a song and the latest story ‘Patches’ is testament to the scars we all bear, physical and emotional.
McGraw was the first Country influence on the school-bus journeying Wilson Jr., and the song he wrote which McGraw would go on to record, ‘For What It’s Worth’ finds a home on this album, about the deep love for another.
Special mention goes to my favourite track, on this album, possibly ever, ‘Year To Be Young 1994. The metaphorical lyrics acutely describe a ‘90s childhood, “my sweatshirt said No Fear’, the pinprick imagery, “my life was a stereo, man it was everything…hiding in my headphones”. The piano, the soaring vocals, the percussion. This song is so much more than 3 minutes and 20 seconds.
‘søᴎ of dad’ is inspired by family, home, childhood, art, religion, grunge music, intellect and most of all the south, which geographically places Wilson Jr. at the vortex of Country, Americana, blues, soul and Appalachia. This behemoth of a debut album places Wilson Jr. right in the heart of cracking good music. Turn the volume up to 11.
Tracklist: 1. the devil 2. Cuckoo 3. billy 4. patches 5. American Gothic (feat. Hailey Whitters) 6. Werewolf 7. Mighty Beast 8. Year to Be Young 1994 9. Twisted 10. Father’s Son 11. Grief Is Only Love 12. Hang in There 13. Calico Creek 14. Holler from the Holler 15. Hometown 16. Not Letting Go 17. For What It’s Worth 18. All the Wars from Now On 19. kid 20. Henry 21. You 22. The Beginning Record Label: Big Loud Records Release Date: 15th September Buy ‘Son of Dad’ now
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