“This place is called Beulah. It is a pleasant lovely shadow. Where no dispute can come.”
Milton by William Blake
Beulah, John Paul White’s first release since the ending of his band The Civil Wars, weaves together folk, Southern rock, Americana and even pop but all on the darker and more melancholy end of the musical spectrum. White pours out his heart and soul on this record, and the vulnerability and heartache that were so clearly present in his one off show at The Moth Light late last year, is still visible and raw; in the production, in his voice and in the writing.
‘Black Leaf’ opens the record, a darkly brooding folk song. Reminiscent of Elliot Smith’s ‘Between the Bars’ with its sparse instrumentation – White’s voice, guitar and piano at the forefront – and the lyrical vagueness. Is he singing about a woman and love gone astray or something darker.
“So bitter, in my heart and in my mouth/ She’s a quitter, but I guess we’re both quitting now.”
The Civil Wars were famous for their signature Southern gothic sound and their Leonard Cohen-esque pop sensibilities, a musical vein White continues with ‘The Once and Future Queen’ and ‘Make You Cry’.
‘The Once and Future Queen’ opens and closes with White’s guitar and vocals; with drums, percussion and Wurlitzer built around it. The Secret Sisters, who are part of White’s band, bring their haunting harmonies to the song, draw to mind dark, empty rooms filled with ghosts of the past.
“If I thought I was good for you/ If I thought this could work/ I’d reach a little higher and I’d pull you back to earth/ But the man you’re really looking for/ The one in all your dreams/ That someone, that someone won’t be me.”
The song is filled with an understated conflict, both inwardly and outwardly, with a ghost of a past love. Telling her it would never have worked out between them as they both wanted different things; her wanting a fairytale, an out of this world love affair, and him admitting to being unable to love her unconditionally and give her everything she desired. He also paints her as being a little selfish, of wanting someone to give her everything but not willing to give love in return.
Listening to the song, there’s familiarity in the mood the music and lyrics create. Not because it sounds like someone else’s song but because it’s as if I’ve heard the words, the music, the harmony before, as if they’ve always been part of my subconscious. The entirety of Beulah feels like this; a memory I didn’t know I was missing until it fell into my lap.
The latter, ‘Make You Cry’, a sleepy and languid track about wanting your lover to be suffering just as much as you are for not being together but also hoping deep down that maybe, just maybe, things could be different.
“Ooh I want you to need me the way that I’m gonna need you/ Would it kill you to do some bleeding/ Just for a moment or two?/ I want to make you beg/ I’d like to hear you plead/ Tell me that things could be different/ Tell me this ain’t gotta be?”
Though, the instrumentation is very similar to the previous song, this song feels sparser and emptier, there’s a longing and a wanting, that wasn’t present before. The harmonies between White and The Secret Sisters, along with the strings and delicate piano tinkering, bring this sadness to the forefront.
In both songs there’s an air of ambiguity, of vagueness, of what the narrators true feelings are towards the subject their singing about, and that is the beauty of it. There’s enough room for you and your memories in the song. It’s your music as much as it’s his.
‘Hope I Die’ was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett have all cut albums. You can hear and feel the groove and soul on this track more than any on Beulah. If a song could have sex appeal, then ‘I Hope I Die’ would have heaps. With its hypnotic electric guitar riff and the bassline that pulses throughout, the tension slowly builds with each chorus.
The track begins with a tape being rewound and then immediately opens with White’s breathy and seductive vocals
“If you go/ I won’t bleed forever/ Over time the wounds will turn to leather/ If I survive/ I will reach for someone new/ I hope I die.”
There are momentary breaks when the bass lifts and the heavy mood is suspended and the guitar and vocals soar, the closeness is opened up but only momentarily, and then the song dips back down as before. Perhaps mimicking those moments of grieving when you think there’s hope and respite from all the pain but those moments quickly fall away leaving you back in that darkened room once again.
“All will be compared to this/ And all will pale, yes I’m convinced/ If I survive guess I’ll find out if that’s true/ I hope I die, I hope I die/ Before I do.”
The tension slowly builds with the hypnotic chorus, and White’s guitar playing that ever since The Civil Wars has always felt like an extension of White’s body and soul, and in this case it has never been more evident. As the song reaches its crescendo, White’s vocals and the string section soar, the depressive becomes heartbreaking.
“This is not a burn I want to chase/ This should be the last thing that I taste/ I will love again, I know I will/ I will, But still I hope I die/ I hope I die before I do”
The track ends as quickly as it began. As if the tape has been stopped and the heartbreak put to bed. ‘Hope I Die’ perfectly captures that emotional place we all journey to after a relationship ends; just wanting the pain to end, and not being too bothered about how it does.
‘I’ve Been Over This’ evokes the music of Townes Van Zandt, and country songs of the ‘70s, with its storytelling quality and element of hopelessness and resignation. The song could be the long lost brother to George Jones’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’; trying to convince yourself that you will never be in that situation where you have to get over that person again and have made the decision to stay far away from them.
“You came and went/ I cried till I was spent/ I’m alive but barely/ I’m not far from where you buried me.”
On first listen, the song with its slow and comforting guitar rhythm, and The Secret Sisters old world harmonies and fiddle arrangement, creates the atmosphere of a soothing lullaby but on the second or third listen, the deeply depressing lyrics begin to reveal themselves;
“So as long as I may live/ I can never let you in/ I’ve been over this before/ Won’t get over it again/ I’ve been over you before/ Won’t get over you again.”
There will always be a song that make a record. A song that you can’t imagine not being on there. A song that the first time you hear it makes you sit still and listen, I mean really listen. And a song that no matter how many times you hear the opening bars, and that hushed, delicate voice that at times barely rises above a whisper, will always leave your heart and soul a little more open.
‘Hate the Way You Love Me’ is that song from Beulah.
The first verse is the soft, delicate and vulnerable words of a quietly broken man, with the accompaniment of a melodic guitar;
“Well I hate the way you see me like a man that can’t be fixed/ Like a fool fooling all but you who he really is/ And I hate the way you hold me/ Nervous as a cat/ Like I might get the big idea you’d forgive me just like that.”
The song then turns from a somber folk song into a fully-fledged country song full of that richness and closeness that only a mandolin and fiddle can bring to a song.
“And I hate myself for staying where I should and should not be/ With someone I know I don’t deserve and doesn’t deserve me.”
He never tries to gloss over the cracks or pretend he’s healed or has learnt his lesson. It’s plain and simple – here I am broken, bruised and ugly, and I don’t know why, but you love me.
“Oh but when I’ve been at my most ugly/ I hate the way you love me”
In describing the album and music in general, White quite succinctly says,
“If you had to some up what music is for people in this world, it’s that. It’s that escape. It’s that refuge. You go there and you come back and you use that to help with your life. You always have that as a place to go.”
And that is what Beulah has become for me, at least. A place to go where I can smile, cry, dance and just sit; inside every note and every word. A place to go, to just escape for a while.