Seven years after his album debut as a solo act, and more than a decade after relocating to Nashville, singer-songwriter Emerson Hart is back with his second album. Hart first came to notice through his band Tonic, but was heard even more broadly with the crafting of “Generation” for the Dick Clark-produced television show, American Dreams. His latest, produced by David Hodges, has a bigger sound than 2007′s Cigarettes & Gasoline, and the arrangements are more dynamic and dramatic than the singer-songwriter vibe of his earlier work. Hart’s voice fits well into these beefier backings, carving a human-sized emotional channel through Hodges’ powerfully constructed productions.
Like more recent Nashville transplants, Hart connects to the power balladry of modern country, rather than the city’s twangy musical heritage. There are worn down moments, such as the troubling reminders of “To Be Young,” and introspective “Mostly Gray,” but the album first grabs listeners with the soaring chorus of “The Best That I Can Give.” Beyond the latter’s instantly hummable melody, Hart communicates the song’s conflicted emotion with the tone of his voice and the top-range notes for which he reaches with every last ounce of strength. The apologetic lyric turns out to be icing on a perfectly bittersweet cake, and offers a preview of the album’s themes of uncertainty and unexpected repercussions. The exasperated questions of “Who Am I,” though not as venomously bitter, will remind listeners of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, and “Hurricane” finds a similar middle ground between intellectual dissection and emotional flight.
From the number of songs of separation, one might assume this album is the product of a fresh break-up. But as a relative newlywed, it’s more likely that Hart is a romantic who’s collected a lifetime of emotional scars into the realization that life isn’t just full of ups and downs, it is ups and downs. The disappointments of “Don’t Forget Yourself” and sad inevitability of “Hallway” are the tail-end of experiences worth the suffering and lives that aren’t fatalistic. Hart’s mood turns celebratory for the twang-tinged love song “You Know Who I Am,” and the album closes with “The Lines,” an uplifting song about the growth that springs from inexperience. It’s a fittingly hopeful and inspirational ending to an album that dwells, inventories, analyzes and finally draws direction from the highs and the lows that give each other dimension. [©2014 Hyperbolium]