Album Review – Stephen Wilson Jr.’s “bon aqua”

For nearly four years now, Stephen Wilson Jr. has been teasing fans with single and video releases that set this songwriter in the minds of listeners somewhere between Tyler Childers and Ryan Bingham in style, with glimmers of how he could become the next big independent country riser beside the other raw and honest performers emanating out of Appalachia and other disadvantaged areas.

Unique, edgy, and original, with a visual component to his music via the moody and imaginative videos that accompany his releases, Stephen Wilson Jr. is like no other artist you’ve seen before, yet comes with a distinct leaven of familiarity in how his music calls back to the influences of past country music and 90s grunge rock in equal measure. This marriage of appeal has made some opine that he could be one of these independent artists destined for mainstream impact.

But some in the independent ranks may be surprised to find out that Stephen Wilson Jr. is already in the mainstream, and has been there for years. Though he sings about hills and hollers, and dresses in thrift store fashion, Stephen Wilson Jr. is very much a specimen of the mainstream, and has been since signing a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2016, contributing songs to artists like Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne, and Caitlyn Smith.

From Southern Indiana, and raised by a single father who was a boxer, Stephen Wilson Jr. was a Golden Glove kid himself whose path to middle Tennessee didn’t come through country music, but in the pursuit of a microbiology degree at MTSU in Murfreesboro. While at college, he started an indie rock band called AutoVaughan as the lead guitarist. He eventually left the band after graduating to become a full-time scientist … before eventually deciding music was more his speed and stationing himself in Nashville.

Though many queries have been sent to Saving Country Music asking for an assessment of Stephen Wilson Jr. over the last few years, judgement was reserved until he released a proper album as opposed to a succession of singles so a more global assessment could be made. Recently Wilson Jr. signed to Music Row label Big Loud, best known for being the home of Morgan Wallen and Hardy, and released all of his singles and a new song in an EP format calling it bon aqua.

The album starts out with the stunning and immersive song “the devil,” which Wilson Jr. originally released in 2019. Whatever hype precedes this strange and somewhat elusive artist seems validated by the visionary approach and turns of phrase captured in the track and its accompanying video. Stephen Wilson Jr. definitely has a distinctive sound that finds its inspiration in America’s seedy and forgotten underbelly where decrepit things are left to decay.

But as you keep listening to this 7-song EP, you start to hear the somewhat shockingly pervasive influence of mainstream songwriting methods work themselves into the process to the point where it starts to feel more like commercial product than music from the muddy hills. Specifically, Stephen Wilson Jr. succumbs to the list style of songs, which starts out as forgivable, yet quickly becomes taxing and exposing of his creativity due to their pervasiveness.

The second song of the album “American Gothic” with fellow Big Loud artist Hailey Whitters (and the only real ‘new’ song on the album) certainly evokes a moody, brooding attitude to go along with its Gothic theme. But the song ultimately boils down to an achingly repetitive machine gunning out of terms as opposed to trying to tell a story through narrative and character. Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen. White frost, bean field, bonfire, kerosene” the chorus drones over and over.

Sure, it may not be the “truck, beer, tailgate, dirt road” laundry list that we’re used to from the mainstream set, but the approach is basically the same. It’s ditto for Wilson Jr.’s biggest hit “Year to Be Young 1994.” It’s evocation of nostalgia is effective on the audience, but the song devolves into a list of 90s artifacts as opposed to engendering appeal by putting together any kind of deeper theme.

“Hometown” is a song that’s been done ad nauseum, and yet again relies on nostalgia for appeal, while the Lumineer’s-style Millennial whoop in the chorus is pretty unforgivable, however infectious it might be. “Holler from the Holler” feels like what a Bro-Country songwriter would come up with if he was told to rewrite “Whitehouse Road” by Tyler Childers. There’s no composition here in either the lyrics or the music. It just devolves into yelling, and hopes that loud and crunchy guitar can pull a content-bereft song through to the end.

“billy” devolves even more, taking bad Pixies-sounding indie rock guitar, another Lumineer’s-style “Hey!” for good measure, and repeats the line “You can call me Billy, but the hills come with me” a torturing sixteen times. The final song “The Beginning” ends on a bit more of a positive note, but as opposed to developing the pretty good premise for the song deeper, it degrades into a nebulous soundscape. If this was a movie soundtrack, these songs may work for something. But it isn’t. The music on this album is a general mess—all about mood as opposed to exploring the art of instrumentation.

You want to give Stephen Wilson Jr. credit for trying to do something different here, and taken as a whole, bon aqua does make for an interesting musical expression and discussion point. Like Big Loud’s Hardy, he seems to be self-aware, and wanting to find ways to uniquely express himself. But it’s all of the style, and little of the substance that makes Appalachian music so reverberative. And yes, it is a shame that the Bro-Country era so destroyed the value of list songs. But that’s the way it is. One or two is passable, but putting out an EP full of them and hoping to find appeal with folks who are used to actual songwriting is not going to fly.

An EP of mostly previously-released material is just the start for Stephen Wilson Jr., and he certainly shows some promise and an interesting approach. But if he wants to be taken seriously as an artist beyond Music Row circles and Morgan Wallen fans who also listen to “Feathered Indians,” he’s going to have to say something, as opposed to just listing something.


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