By Holly Smith
Stephen Wilson Jr. has created a sound that is both on trend and entirely unique.
1. the devil
5. American Gothic (feat. Hailey Whitters)
7. Mighty Beast
8. Year to Be Young 1994
10. Father's Son
11. Grief Is Only Love
12. Hang in There
13. Calico Creek
14. Holler from the Holler
16. Not Letting Go
17. For What It's Worth
18. All the Wars from Now On
22. The Beginning
Søn of Dad may be Stephen Wilson Jr.’s debut album, but do not be led into thinking that he’s some prodigious upstart.
With his teeth cut in indie rock band AutoVaughan and the writers rooms of Nashville, he’s a seasoned musical craftsman who produces a sound that is meticulously curated, whilst also sounding like it was born with its owner.
From those frenetic string openings that land in the lap of their ominous percussive partners (see 'Billy' as a prime example), the record swills like a carnival in purgatory. Its curator is clear in its intentions and its attendees are sure of beating hearts and sweaty palms, but they're unsure as to whether it's the product of nerves or thrill.
The truth is, like the album, Wilson sits somewhere indefinable both musically and symbolically. His mix of grunge, energetic rock and string king country music weaves amongst the dark and the light that he draws out of most of his subjects. Raised in the pentecostal church and still something of a believer himself (‘devil’ is deliberately written in lower case), Wilson shows his cards as a practical dealer in symbology.
The songs are filled with biblical imagery; a snake that will “crawl the earth to shed its skin to make more room for the poison” ('devil'), a crown of thorns and breaking bread ('Mighty Beast') and square dancing with demons ('Werewolf'). The animalistic nature of it all manifests in Wilson's voice as well, sitting somewhere between a purr and a snarl.
Grief is the centrepiece though, with a three-track run of songs about his late father running straight through the heart of the album. 'Hang In There' is the most raw of them all, the shaky, untouched vocal noticeable in its vulnerability.
So that’s the dark. What about the light? For grief and the devil don’t mean only one thing, something that's demonstrated perfectly on 'Grief Is Only Love'. In fact, the album cleverly and self-referentially bookends itself biblically, opened by the devil and ending with The Beginning, a morbidly uplifting track that pleads we remember that “the world keeps spinning / we’ve been talking about the end ever since the beginning”.
Søn of Dad is not all served up in tongues and fire, with some tender storytelling displayed on tracks like 'Henry', a tribute to his stepson which gives a fresh perspective on the role of fatherhood on his life. 'You' is a heartfelt but sharp-edged love song, in which he urges its subject to “sign me up like Mickey Mantle”, a reference to the New York Yankees baseball player who died of liver cancer caused by alcoholism. The devil here is a lesson in the strength of love, in the power of his partner to stand between him and the beast.
Stephen Wilson Jr. has created a sound that is both on trend and entirely unique. The Book of Ecclesiastes says that “there is an appointed time for everything”. This is Stephen Wilson Jr’s time.
8.5 / 10
Stephen Wilson Jr.'s 2023 album, Søn of Dad, is out now via Big Loud Records.
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