It’s a rare feeling you get when you stumble upon a songwriter that makes you feel things from music that you thought had long since gone dormant after your days of adolescence and young adulthood—a songwriter that is singular in their perspective during an era when it feels like everything sounds the same and it’s all been said, and that tries to forge new territory as opposed to taking to nostalgia to draw appeal.
Gabe Lee is one of those rare songwriting specimens, certified by the enthusiasm of the few but vehement fans he’s accrued over his short career. It’s even more rare when one of these exceptional songwriters exceeds your expectations to the degree that Gabe Lee does with Drink The River. A shiver-inducing, spectacularly sung and written tour de force, it substantiates all your suspicions that this young man is a signature songwriter of this generation.
Over the course of three albums, the sound of Gabe Lee has been somewhat mercurial. From American folk, to Southern rock, to acoustic country, to Heartland ballads, he’s been searching for the right home for his songs, or perhaps refusing to be pigeonholed. It may be easy to conclude that the simple, bluegrass style instrumentation on Drink The River accompanied by tasteful steel guitar is the sweet spot for his songs. And perhaps that’s true since it refuses to step on the toes of what Gabe is trying to say, and it comes together so melodiously.
For sure, Drink The River is flattered by the production and arrangement brought to bear with it, and it might be Gabe’s best musical accompaniment yet. But that’s burying the lede. Little did we know that Lee still had more headroom to grow as a songwriter, and more soul to uncover through his arresting voice. The refinement evidenced in these compositions, the further exploration and application of melody, along with singing the bloody hell out of these songs results in something of a stature that not even many Gabe Lee advocates were anticipating.
The genius of Gabe Lee’s songwriting is his refusal to work in the realm of clear specificity. He instead favors poetic ambiguity that can mold itself into the nooks and crannies of the listener’s brain, making them believe each line and verse was uniquely crafted just for them. Is “Lidocaine” about a touring musician losing touch with reality, a dementia patient slipping into the abyss, or both, or neither? Is it about you, or is it about me?
It’s been said before and it bears repeating here, when Gabe Lee sings a song with a woman’s name in it, make sure you’re mentally prepared. “Eveline” was the song from Gabe’s debut album Farmland (2019) that caught the ear of many, and converted them to Gabe Lee acolytes. For posterity perhaps—or maybe because he was so happy with what these new studio sessions were turning out—Gabe decided to re-record “Eveline” for Drink The River. But it’s the new song “Merigold” from Drink The River that will have some blaming allergies for a misty eye.
And just when you begin to worry that the weight of these moments is a little too much to bear, Gabe Lee delivers a little bit of levity, and a little bit of country sensibility in the final song “Property Line.” What’s so endearing about Gabe Lee is he can sing and write about very folksy scenarios in an authentic vernacular taken directly from experience, but he never tries to imitate, even though as a Nashville native he has just as much a birthright to this music as anyone.
Some may make the case that with only nine songs—including a re-recording and a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “All I Can Do Is Writer About It”—that Drink The River just doesn’t have the heft of new material to have a significant impact. But Gabe Lee and producers David Dorn and Alex Torrez clearly favored making sure every square inch of this effort was refined and perfectly executed as opposed to trying to do battle in the track list arms race of today. It’s hard to argue with the results, even if you selfishly want more.
Gabe Lee is one of those songwriters, and Drink The River is one of those albums where you want to shout to the rooftops and tell the world about it because of the richness to be found, and the value to be gained. You know damn well that only some will listen to you, no matter how emphatic you are, because that’s the way life and art work.
But when you find something magnificent, you want to share it, because listening to Gabe Lee makes you appreciate all of life life more. It makes you want to be a better person, to yourself and others. That is what the music of Gabe Lee brings out in you, transcending the mere value of art and entertainment. And today, that is too rare to take lightly.
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