Like some time-shifting hybrid between a hillbilly preacher and the human vessel for a Johnny Cash voodoo seance, Paul Cauthen and his barrel-chested voice come bounding out of a reality warp with seven new songs packaged together in an EP titled Have Mercy. As an undeniable part of the cool and hip country/Americana upsurge, Cauthen adds a specific and unique style to the ecosystem that is often overlooked. As many flock to Waylon, Hank, or Strait as primary influences, they often side step the Man in Black, even if they name him as an inspiration. Meanwhile Paul Cauthen stares deep into Johnny Cash’s eyes, studies him from his virtue to his id, and reinterprets it to the world.
Paul Cauthen’s deep, billowy voice is the biggest and most immediate attention grabber in his music, setting himself apart from other singers and performers from naturally-bestowed attributes specifically applicable and beneficial to performing country music served with a Gospel soul. His words come across like claps of thunder more than human iterations—like Moses conveying the Commandments as opposed to a country boy singing cautionary tales. Along with a 60’s style that coincides with this voice as sweetly as Smuckers and Peter Pan spreadables, Cauthen has put himself on pretty sure footing as a country performer.
The problem with Paul Cauthen and specifically this new EP is the same that evidenced itself in his 2016 solo debut, My Gospel. The power of his voice is undeniable, but the affectation he puts upon it renders it polarizing. A force of nature ultimately becomes something with only a niche appeal among throwback hipsters, and perhaps those prone to falling for Johnny Cash impersonations, because even though his voice is unquestionably rich and powerful, Paul Cauthen ultimately feels like shtick.
Every single performing music artist labors to deceive via how they present themselves to the public in some respect, either through their music, their public persona, or their stage presence. This isn’t necessarily a nefarious endeavor. They’re entertainers, and it’s their occupation to serve something that is appealing to an audience. The most honest of entertainers try to envelop their own personalities in music first before incorporating concerns of how to present it to the public, while some mainstream performers may be virtually all showmanship and choreography.
When it comes to Paul Cauthen, his efforts just feel too transparent to allow the myth that music must sustain to withstand conscious scrutiny. Some suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy all music to its highest degree, but with Paul Cauthen, the disbelief precedes him. It feels like he’s doing an imitation bit of something he wants to be, instead of finding the proper expressions within his own styles and natural abilities—which happen to be quite robust, and better than average.
The opening song and single of the EP called “Everybody Walkin’ This Land” is too Johnny Cash to be considered as an original expression. The way Cauthen sings the line “You can’t take my Cadillac” in the song “Cadillac” is so overwrought and affected, it’s rendered outright ridiculous, and works to dispel the entirety of his music. The writing throughout the album is mild at best, and very judgemental in spurts. Even production decisions enter into the concerns, with the guitar tone of the title track being the worst of 70’s country trying to obsequiously appeal to the disco craze.
This music is mostly hip styling with little underpinning substance. Even the supposedly erudite statements of certain songs are incredibly trite, too direct to be effective, sometimes contradictory, and mix severe judgement with an attempt at being magnanimous. This is music to watch instead of listen to. And as much as the arguments of “authenticity” can be annoying, or even irrelevant to music, at least when you regard a band like Midland, their obsession with style doesn’t completely invade the music itself. You can write off the promo photos and the stupid things they say in the press, and the music is still pretty good. With Paul Cauthen, it’s the focus on style in the music specifically that’s the problem, where he’s a much more honest, interesting, and forthright guy in person.
It’s also fair to question once again why an established artist riding the momentum of a well-received debut record is deciding to release an EP at this point in his career, especially since just one or two more songs would have turned it into an LP. EPs are judged as half efforts by history, and are destined to be relegated as “also ran” material, from end-of-year lists to Wikipedia pages.
It’s unfair to write off this effort completely though, because it’s difficult to impossible to lobby against the power of Paul Cathen’s voice. It just needs to be dried out, and find its home. It’s unquestionable that Cauthen has the talent for country music. The question is how to craft it in the right direction. When you run in the hip circles Cauthen does in Austin and east Nashville, peers are short on criticism, and quick with praise, which is not always the best environment for art to thrive.
Paul Cauthen and this Have Mercy EP are far from the problem. Many will find favor with it, and shouldn’t have their opinions discounted or questioned. These types of efforts are still much better than most mainstream alternatives, while revitalizing the sound and appreciation of classic country music by proxy. Paul Cauthen is a fun artist both recorded and live, serving a sound that clearly appeals to certain people. The question is how to swell the amount of people who appreciate Paul Cauthen by finding a more authentic and compelling way to present his irrefutable God-given talents.
One Gun Up (5/10)
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