Album Review – Justin Wells – “The United State”

When annotating your illustrated field guide of modern Kentucky singer songwriters, you better make sure it includes a dedicated entry on Lexington’s Justin Wells. For sure, it is an involved and voluminous subject matter, starting with artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, to Kelsey Waldon and Ian Noe, to Tyler Childers and Chris Knight, and on down the line and running well into the margins with notes on promising up-and-comers and overlooked legends. But Mr. Wells is not one to omitted from the discussion.

As the former frontman for the formidable Southern rock band called Fifth on the Floor, Justin Wells has earned such a right to be considered among Kentucky’s top flight, including launching a solo career that among other accolades earned him the 2016 Saving Country Music Song of the Year for “The Dogs.” His unique, progressive take on roots music has found favor with many, with a rich voice ripe for song, and a gifted way of conveying emotions through writing.

New for 2020, Justin Wells has released the album The United State. Ambitious and involved, Wells himself says the album “is a life, from before birth til after death. The songs are a timeline. I’m somewhere on it. Every one of you are somewhere on it.” A work that looks to transcend all differences by digging down to our carnal similarities and the universal truths we all share, the album gives you a lot to digest and ponder, while presenting an entertaining amalgam of roots influences not entirely tied to country, but always a cousin or adjacent to it.

Meant to be taken as a cohesive work with a linear progression, The United State nonetheless births multiple tracks that work well on their own, especially the first two full songs of the record: “The Screaming Song” about human birth with it’s dreamy, watery opening leading into harmonic Southern rock epicness, followed by the more grounded yet still entertaining “No Time for a Broken Heart.” Later, “After The Fall” and “Walls Fall Down” also stand out from the crowd, but due to the involved nature of the material, certain tracks might speak differently or stand out to others. How you personally interpret the record based off of your own perspectives is part of the experience.

But The United State‘s grand vision and underlying message is in some ways is its heaviest burden, along with its greatest asset. Critics love to praise subtlety and nuance in music, but for some of the album’s songs, it’s not patently obvious which stage of life they’re looking to emphasize or illustrate. And despite never really being wrong in any way, there are some moments in the record that just struggle to hold your attention, especially in the middle portions, though admittedly, this result might be different for different people. Some may find themselves immediately and completely immersed in this work. Others may find a few cool songs, but find others kind of boring, and not really connect with the work or its message as a whole.

One of the reasons it’s taken until late November to review this record that released in late August is despite repeated spins and much pondering, still no solid grasp and opinion has been come to for The United State by this particular set of ears, even now as words are being composed to try to describe it, and set it in some sort of greater context. That shouldn’t be taken as a signal of disapproval, only a word of caution that the album may fail to convey its message and appeal to some listeners, even while others may regard it as a master work, and one of the best all year. In the end, neither perspective is wrong. It’s just the nature of this record.

Produced by Duane Lundy, with guitar work contributed by Laur Joamets and Alex Muñoz, The United State is well-apportioned, from the approach to the tracks, to the artwork accompanying the record, and of course the writing of Justin Wells. Though enigmatic in scope in a way that may leave portions of the audience behind, the effort is nonetheless at least worthy of your consideration for the potential of it resonating prophetically for you personally.

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