Album Review: JD McPherson – Undivided Heart & Soul

By on Friday, 27th October 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

JD McPherson UHS album coverHeader photo by Alysse Gafkjen

American retro-rock singer/songwriter JD McPherson recently released a new solo album, ‘Undivided Heart & Soul’. It’s an interesting title, for an artist who dabbled in cattle ranching earned a Master’s degree in visual arts before settling on a career in music. But now three albums in, McPherson has apparently decided that music is his permanent gig, and he’s gone all-in on this 11-track sojourn.

Prior to starting work on ‘Undivided Heart & Soul’, McPherson picked up and moved his family to Nashville from their hometown of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The move put McPherson in close proximity to a variety of collaborating musicians, and the album features contributions from Parker Millsap and Aaron Lee Tasjan, along with the influences of longtime friend Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and album co-producer Dan Molad. But the move didn’t come without an element of added pressure. “This record was difficult for me to make, difficult to write, difficult to record”, McPherson says in the album’s press release. “It took a lot for me to say that I can’t force these songs to be the way people are expecting.”

The album begins with essentially the kind of retro r&b feel that McPherson’s audience might well have predicted, with the head-on intensity and gritty guitars of ‘Desperate Love’ and the shuffling rockabilly of Butch Walker co-write ‘Crying’s Just a Thing You Do’. On closer inspection, however, the latter track is notably more emotionally complex in its lyrics, and the heavy guitar riff in the bridge section is a startling but welcome surprise.

In contrast, early single ‘Lucky Penny’, is decidedly edgier, taking on a modern blues rock feel in the vein of the Black Keys; a sharp and persistent guitar riff underscores McPherson’s ironic lament, “this lucky penny’s been nothing but bad luck”. Title track ‘Undivided Heart & Soul’ is similarly modern in its fuzzy, muted production, but its lyrics retain an old-fashioned, almost quaint sort of quality: “left alone and unrequited / I require your undivided . . . heart and soul”.

Most of the album’s second half harks back to McPherson’s more familiar classic rock ’n’ roll style. ‘Hunting for Sugar’ and ‘Jubilee’ are both is slow ballads that somewhat oddly reminded me of Leon Bridges‘ old school aesthetic, but without the smooth, suave vocal delivery. ‘Bloodhound Rock’ leans heavily back into the retro r&b vibe and feels infinitely more authentic to McPherson’s own natural tendencies.

Final tracks ‘Under the Spell of City Lights’ and ‘Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Still Young’ both take on an edgier tone, the former in a gritty, classic rock ’n’ roll style and the latter with an almost psychedelic twist to the guitar sounds. Cowritten with McPherson’s wife Mandy, ‘Let’s Get Out of Here While We’re Still Young’ cuts to straight to the omnipresent contradiction in McPherson’s anachronistic approach: “we’ve worn out all the songs we’ve sung / come on, honey, let’s get out of here while we’re young”.

Though McPherson is technically adept in both styles, he never quite bridges the gap between studiously retrospective and self-consciously modern. His lack of clear commitment in either direction is perhaps the album’s only downfall. It’s striking that the songs on ‘Undivided Heart & Soul’ don’t inspire the same level of emotional investment from the listener that McPherson clearly made in writing and recording them, despite his very obvious best efforts. Still, the album is generally energetic and enjoyable. If you’re already a JD McPherson fan, you’ll find it to be a nice extension of his work.

7.5/10

‘Undivided Heart and Soul’, JD McPherson’s third studio album, is out now on New West Records. TGTF’s past coverage of McPherson is back through here.

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