In a true procrastinator’s fashion, I have waited until the final dying moments of the year to tackle 2023’s most difficult album to review, and the one that will include some of the most dissenting viewpoints from prevailing sentiments, and opinions that are most likely to be misunderstood. But with some outlets proclaiming Stephen Wilson Jr.’s søn of dad as either the best album of 2023 or one of the best, it deserves dutiful attention and scrutiny.
It’s not that søn of dad is a “bad” album by any stretch, though it does include some very bad songs to go along with some very good ones. At 21 tracks, you have a lot to sift through, and it follows the career arc of an artist over a 4-year span who ventures towards more quality, honesty, and authenticity. But that’s not where it starts, and you have to consider the totality of the work to come to an accurate assessment. And when doing so, it’s easy to conclude that the hyperbolic praise for this album is unwarranted.
The first thing that you need to understand about Stephen Wilson Jr.—and what has been scandalously overlooked by many of his proponents—is that he is 100% a creature of mainstream, major label, Music Row commercial country, full stop. Forget the plaudits about “authenticity,” “rawness” and “realness” that are common preambles to any conversation about Stephen Wilson Jr. and his music. The simple truth is that he is from and of the mainstream industry.
Earlier this year, there was a lot of talk surrounding Oliver Anthony and his super viral song “Rich Men North of Richmond” and how he was allegedly an “industry plant” and the product of “Astroturfing.” Despite the vehemence of some asserting these accusations, no actual evidence has ever materialized to support these claims, even here months after the phenomenon.
If there was an artist that exploded on the scene in 2023 due to support from the mainstream industry, but through independent and grassroots channels, it would be Stephen Wilson Jr. This is not a commentary on his music or even his character necessarily. But it’s also not an opinion. It’s an empirical truth.
Though popular Stephen Wilson Jr. songs such as “billy” and “Holler from the Holler” would have you believing this is an artist from rural West Virginia or Kentucky who’s part of the independent country music insurgency bursting out from Appalachia, Stephen’s actually from the flat land of Seymour, Indiana, best known as the home of John Mellencamp.
Stephen Wilson Jr. has a degree in microbiology from MTSU, and worked for multiple years for the multi-billion-dollar Mars Corporation, known for making M&Ms and Pedigree dog food among dozens of other corporate American brands. He quit that career path to sign a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in August of 2016, writing songs for terrible pop country acts such as Old Dominion, Chase Bryant, and MacKenzie Porter, along with more established names like Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins.
To make søn of dad, Stephen Wilson Jr. partnered with producer Ben West. After migrating from pop to country as a sync agent working with Disney and pop country producer Busbee, Ben West is now signed to a company called Creative Nation, co-owned by mega mainstream country hit writer Luke Laird. søn of dad is released on Big Loud, which is the same label as Morgan Wallen and HARDY.
None of this disqualifies Stephen Wilson Jr. from making good or authentic country music. But it all explains the extremely list-like writing for certain songs, as well as the leaning on lyrical tropes, catchy hooks, and repetitiveness that have their origins in the formulaic writing rooms of corporate Nashville, and that can be found embedded throughout søn of dad.
It has been quizzical to outright alarming to see otherwise distinguishing critics and fans alike not sniff out the significant, and sometimes overwhelmingly trite elements in Stephen Wilson Jr.’s music. It’s not that he’s trying to hide his origin story (though strangely, a Wikipedia page is non-existent for him at the moment), or that he doesn’t have a compelling life story himself. It’s that it doesn’t sync up with many of his biggest songs, which happen to be outright Bro-Country in indie country disguise.
Stephen Wilson Jr. also released an EP earlier this year called bon aqua (read review). In fact, releasing an EP and half a dozen singles before re-releasing them in this full LP form is another dead giveaway that corporate country is involved. But you honestly don’t need a road map or an in-depth investigation to understand that the hype behind this music doesn’t match the substance. All you have to do is listen.
The song “American Gothic” with fellow Big Loud artist Hailey Whitters 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 Lumineers-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 Stephen Wilson Jr. approach seems to be to take safe and stock-like lyrics and apply a dirty and devolved musical accompaniment to them to present a veneer of independent authenticity. Not only is this deception transparent, one byproduct is that the instrumentation on this album is terrible throughout. There really isn’t one inspiring musical performance during this entire 21-song set.
Even if you listen to a Jason Aldean record, you’ll hear blazing guitar solos. They may be more indicative of arena rock than country, but at least they show some skill. Here, the music is a complete afterthought. Along with the droning of dark monotonous guitar chords, the scant synth-like rhythmic accompaniments hurt the cause more than help.
As we see from independent country fans commonly, if something sounds like shit, it must be cool, authentic, and organic. If it’s bright and slick, it must be pop and mainstream. It’s not that the Stephen Wilson Jr. approach couldn’t work, or that it isn’t working to some extent. But it’s often the instrumentation that helps tell the story in some of the best country music. You can be morose and still allow the music to be expressive. But that’s not what happens here.
Beyond the list songs, you have other stuff that sounds straight from Music Row’s writing rooms. You could swear “Cuckoo” is a castoff from an Eric Church project. No surprise when a check of the liner notes reveals regular Church collaborator Travis Meadows is one of the co-writers. “patches” takes on that same aspect, co-written by another common Nashville hit maker, Jeffrey Steele.
Even when a Stephen Wilson Jr. song goes off the mainstream country script, it’s still often sullied by mainstream mechanisms. “Grief Is Only Love” is also co-written with Jeffrey Steele, and is bolstered by a great one-liner. But similar to what plagues other Wilson Jr. songs, when a good line is issued over and over incessantly, it erodes its potency.
“Grief Is Only Love” comes during a run of songs about Stephen Wilson’s father that finally give søn of dad some desperately needed originality, as well as a personal touch. “Father’s Søn” sees a vulnerable side of Wilson Jr., and one that’s all his own. “Hang In There” inspired by a personal memento owned by his dad also hits home, and has you realizing how deep Wilson can go when inspired to.
Stephen Wilson Jr. was raised by a single father and competed in Golden Glove boxing competitions while growing up. This is the reason the cover art portrays him in a boxing ring. Tracks 10-12 contrast greatly with much of the other material on the album where Stephen Wilson Jr. is trying to be someone other than who he is while riding buzzwords and trends to find appeal.
Tracks 18-20 comprise a similar run of surprisingly great and sincerely originally-inspired tracks that show that Stephen Wilson Jr. deserves praise when he has his nose pointed in the right direction. The poignant and timely “All The Wars from Now On” is like nothing else you’ll ever hear from mainstream country, which is used to braying out pandering odes about “supporting the troops” with no substance behind them.
“kid” is yet another song that relies on the list approach to songwriting, but it’s also one that shows that lists are not always adverse if it’s paired with a compelling story and message. “Henry” might be the most heartfelt moment of the album. Stephen Wilson Jr. married singer and songwriter Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer in 2011. Her son from a previous marriage is named Henry, and this song is Wilson speaking about his love beyond blood. “You” is likely about Leigh Nash, who Wilson has also collaborated with over the years.
As søn of dad transpires, a maturity and depth emerges that belies what the biggest songs from his bon aqua EP portray. It’s almost like you can see Stephen Wilson Jr.’s evolution as a songwriter and performer as the album plays out. But you also can’t unlisten to songs like “American Gothic” or “Holler from the Holler.” They’re part of this album too, and fly in the face of its critical acclaim like a poison pill. søn of dad does have some really good songs. But it also has a lot of bad ones where Stephen Wilson Jr. is outright cosplaying.
If søn of dad sold itself authentically as a mainstream country release, it would be one of the better mainstream releases of the season. But instead, Stephen Wilson Jr. seems to want to tap into the whole Appalachia authenticity thing, while still relying on the writing approach that he was indoctrinated in while working for BMG. You can’t have it both ways.
The album is bookened by two more excellent songs: “the devil” that he released all the way back in 2019, and “The Beginning,” which again shows a depth of perspective that might be unexpected if you’ve only heard Stephen Wilson Jr.’s top playlisted songs.
This all comes together to make søn of dad a confounding and inconsistent work that is arguably unworthy of being considered the “best” of anything in 2023. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments. But they should have isolated all the Bro-Country/fake “holler” stuff to his previously-released EP, and let the more evolved tracks inspired by Stephen Wilson Jr.’s father stand alone.
The way søn of dad unfolds gets you excited about what this artist might have in store for the future. But in the present, this album falls short of the expectations fawning fans and press have presented it with.
– – – – – – – – – –