For Easter, Oliver Anthony Releases Debut Album (Review)

Yes. The “Rich Men North of Richmond” guy. No, he wasn’t exposed as the “Astroturfed” industry shill that many accused him of being. And no, he didn’t disappear off the face of the earth after his all-genre #1 song ran its course like others predicted. If there were corporate puppetmasters behind this guy, they still have yet to reveal themselves. And meanwhile, Anthony is selling out mid-sized arenas on his current tour across the United States.

Oliver Anthony is using the occasion of Easter to independently release his debut album, Hymnal of a Troubled Man’s Mind. Produced by Dave Cobb and with songs solely written by Anthony, this album is the viral star’s effort to chronicle and encapsulate most everything he’s written up until this point in his career, while taking a similar approach to the music that helped garner him national headlines and sparked many conversations.

At a moment when the United States stumbles towards deciding between two historically unpopular people for President, and the gap between the have’s and the have not’s continues to widen, Oliver Anthony’s populist message continues to resonate with people. His songs speak to a feeling of anger, frustration, and hopelessness many are experiencing, and the top vs. bottom as opposed to left vs. right polarity that is only becoming more pronounced.

That doesn’t mean Oliver Anthony’s message doesn’t come with ample amounts of polarization. His proclamations still come with opinions coded on the right, exacerbated by the religious messaging he also platforms. But as opposed to running towards the embrace of conservative America and the corporate Christian identity, Anthony continues to shirk the political binary and power brokers, and tries to speak to all those disenfranchised on a more universal level.

Debuting Hymnal of a Troubled Man’s Mind on Easter is apropos to this work. Though it’s not a Gospel album and religious connotations only appear in a few songs, eight of the 18 tracks from the album feature Anthony reciting Bible verse directly, similar to how he’s known to do at his live shows. These recitations aren’t just interludes in between tracks. The verses are interwoven with the themes of Anthony’s original songs.

All of Anthony’s songs heretofore have either been recorded on his Samsung phone or in field recordings for video. The intent of this work was to catalog these songs in a more professional form. In this case, it comes from Anthony recording with Dave Cobb in a church in Georgia. Cobb brings sparse and tasteful accompaniment of bass, sometimes drums, a little fiddle, and occasionally guitar that even steps out and gets loud, but in a way that compliments the swells of emotion in a song, and then fades back into the shadows to leave Anthony as the center of attention.

Anthony’s own playing on his now signature resonator guitar is also emphasized, and everything is rendered in a very earthen country folk manner with bluesy inflections. With the natural echo of the recording space and Anthony’s expressive delivery, these songs feel like a fair balance between studio renderings and field recordings.

How to approach this work had to be the most delicate decision for Dave Cobb and Oliver Anthony. Very similar to Zach Bryan, it’s the rawness and realness of the experience that allowed Oliver Anthony to go viral in the first place. Overproducing his songs could crush everything that is critical to the music’s appeal. Yet if the work is too unpolished, or doesn’t serve anything different from what folks have already heard in videos and scratch recordings, it could be received with a whimper.

Ultimately, the right balance is found here. And similar to Zach Bryan, sometimes it comes with under-developed writing. But when Anthony lands a lyrical punch, it’s a big one, setting off a light bulb moment for listeners. This is what has elevated Anthony well beyond a one hit wonder. He speaks directly to people’s souls, and those words are allowed to enter because the music is unpretentious, honest, and doesn’t smack of product.

Obviously though, reading from scripture is something that’s going to turn swaths of the listening audience away from Oliver Anthony. And though some of the Bible verses have a more universal, and distinctly non-religious conclusion, others are specific about how there’s one path towards salvation. How you feel about this concept is likely to effect how you feel about Oliver Anthony’s music moving forward, especially after this Easter Sunday release.

Oliver Anthony said ahead of Hymnal of a Troubled Man’s Mind that the aim of this album is to chronicle his life and songs from 2013 to 2023. It also means any fans have already heard most of these songs. But he’s also signaled that this may not be his approach moving forward, leaving open the idea of more band-oriented or more fully-produced songs and albums in the future. Or maybe not.

But as long as folks continue to be unrepresented by their political representatives, fear and hopelessness continue to spread, and the grasp on the American dream continues to slip from the hands of more people, there will be an audience for Oliver Anthony’s music. Great artists often reflect the times in which they live, and rise to fill gaps in messaging and appeal. Oliver Anthony certainly accomplished this in a very viral manner. And as long as the present conditions persist, it’s likely Oliver Anthony will continue to find an audience among the forgotten.


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