Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” meets The Assembly Line’s “Tonight” on “You Will Find”, the first track off Joseph Cutshall’s latest release. While Stay Close is branded as folk rock, there’s something a bit more intricate at play here – hints of 90s and 2000s singer-songwriters, subdued ambience of acts like The Frozen Ocean, and even more standard indie fare in general. Don’t expect a mostly-acoustic, Americana-flavored release. This is a record adorned in dynamics, evident from its first notes. Neither so is the record fixated on any singular subject for too long – a true theme might like wrestling in the valleys between sight and certainty that we call faith. Cutshall ruminates on fears of how his children will experience the world; elsewhere he contemplates the book of Jonah. I’m reminded quite a bit of Fepeste in how Cutshall approaches the strange intersection of faith, family, and our modern moment.
Surprisingly, this is Cutshall’s first proper record – fashioned in the midst of the pandemic during a trying season of doubt in light of worldwide and personal turmoil. And while many pandemic records have played to particular angles, the tone of Stay Close is perhaps more tender than anything else. There’s a lingering lethargy at play, like the hopeful-but-uncertain end of a post-apocalyptic movie. Cutshall reminds us there is a path forward, though he does not paint in all the hues for us.
Of course, these sentiments are only augmented by the nostalgia of the arrangements, hearkening back to decades past. The press kit I got references comparisons to Bon Iver or John Mayer, artists who’ve both had tenured careers at this point. Simultaneously, it’s the earlier works which tend to get the most praise. And while I might not entirely agree with these comparisons, there’s definitely a case to be made that Cutshall’s sound falls nicely in line with the ambitious solo artists of the 90s and 00s. That doesn’t mean the songs feel dated by any degree, but they seem to naturally play upon the passage of time. Cutshall’s voice is soulful and seasoned; his guitar parts glimmer in the background. Tracks like “Bury Me Deeper” lay everything out vulnerably.
But Cutshall’s sound is not quite so singular. Take “Passing Shadows”, a track that hinges on modern worship in its lyrical delivery and post-rock influence. Not every track is peppered with biblical references or overt spirituality, but this is certainly one of the cases where nothing is hidden. Overall, it’s simply very compelling and again reminds me of The Frozen Ocean. “Now ‘Til the End of Time” continues in the same sonic vein, this time opting for falsetto-laden vocals and synthesizer arpeggios. These two songs serve as a captivating one-two punch on the record.
Of course, that’s not to say the record slows down or becomes stale. “Light Will Come” reminds me a bit of some of the softer songs off Kiven’s self-titled album (okay, no one knows this band but it’s one of my all-time favorite records). There’s something about this record that feels like the sort of thing that would pack auditoriums a few decades back. It’s full, lush, and dynamic, all without losing its sensitivity. There’s a driving force here, a sense of forward momentum. It’s nice to hear a hopeful record that doesn’t feel trite or cheap in an age where it’s easier to linger in pain as a marketing tactic. Cutshall’s songs are bright, blooming, undercurrented by stampeding percussion.
This isn’t a quick record, either. The shortest track tops four minutes, and the total runtime is over 50 minutes total. This is substantial when many records trend around 30-40 minutes. And while some albums exchange a loss of quality for a longer runtime, the added minutes on Stay Close only presents more of what makes Cutshall’s songwriting so strong. The album avoids ever being naively optimistic, but it’s most assuredly never despondent. Take these closing lines:
And I can hear you singing of a city and a tree
There was evening, there was morning
There’s a table and a feast
And I’m trying to hold on to it
I’m trying to believe
So I’ll wait a little longer while I’m in the in-between
I will wait a little longer
A little more
While I’m here in the in-between
The older I get, the more I realize the necessity of living within states of tension. There is the already-and-not-yet. We see through glass dimly. Suffering can feel insurmountable or endless at times, but it’s weakness where our faith is perfected. This sounds trite on paper, but it’s another thing to have your world leveled and rebuilt – sometimes even more than once. And while many of these songs are obfuscated in poetry to some degree, there is certainly plenty of struggle under it all.
Overall, Cutshall’s debut LP captures a balance of modern worship, arena-rock solo artists, post-rock, and more minimalist folk. But apart from the bookends, this record tends toward the rock side in its various forms. It’s a relaxed album that isn’t without crescendos and instrumental builds. It’s maybe a bit sleepy for moments, perhaps a coffee shop vibe more than anything else, but there’s plenty of substance all the same. Some songs might start to sound similar during a passive run through, and the extended length certainly isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But I personally find something like this exciting – it occupies a similar space as many of the defunct Come&Live artists I once enjoyed. This is a sort of self-confident record, one that does not need to scream, beg, or throw accusations in order to be heard.
Stay Close releases 10/27.