The people who market records love "a good back-story"--that is, something colorful in the artist's past or in the process of making the music that the record company and/or publicist can exploit to get the media interested in the performer. When it comes to back-stories, Paul Thorn is a publicist's dream. Singing from his preacher father's pulpit at age three, boxing Roberto Duran on national TV, being plucked from making chairs in a factory by Miles Copeland for a deal on his boutique label--Thorn's life holds enough stories for three artists, and they have been oft told during a recording career that now spans over a decade. Unfortunately the music can sometimes get lost in the back-story, so let us quickly move on to the terrific songs and performances contained in Thorn's first recording of new music in four years.
His last studio outing, Are You With Me, was declared a "smooth-soul masterpiece" (by me). If that record was pop with strong soul underpinnings, ALWFT often tempers its pop with more of a rock sound. Searing guitars and swirling organ mix with E-Street style piano drama on about a third of tunes. Another third display strong evidence of Thorn's church background, with gospel grooves, and/or a spiritual bent that never turns preachy. Elsewhere funk ("Crutches") and swamp (the title tune) feels raise their heads.
As ever, Thorn remains a master storyteller. Whereas Are You With Me focused on sad and funny personal narratives of love and sex, this time his lyricist's voice expands to include tales of teenage newlyweds ("Luck Seven Ranch"), missed chances ("Everybody Wishes"), and the legendary farmer's daughter (the title tune). The church-influenced cuts tell us that it's "All About People," and ask us "What Have You Done To Lift Somebody Up."
Thorn's eye for detail is what makes his accounts so compelling. "Fearless and 16 / I prayed for a car / I thought that freedom / was a'69 Dodge," he relates in "Woman To Love." In "All About People" he tells us that "It's twelve o'clock, she's had a long night / twirlin' round the pole by the neon light / some were kind and some were crass / and some just wanted to kiss her…" (Thorn doesn't finish it and neither will I). I could go on and on with examples of how he delivers a sense of place and time in song after song but you should get the record and hear it for yourself.
As with any great songwriting, it is not just the literal meaning of the words but how they sound within the music that makes for the most powerful tunes. Thorn and his crack musicians lock in on every track with tremendous energy but every part in place. Guitarists Bill Hinds and Bob Britt interweave like the best Muscle Shoals players of yore. Britt's electric sitar and the aforementioned E-Street style piano of Michael Graham in "Everybody Wishes" collaborate with the words to create a palpable feeling of people whose best years were in their past.
With the help of his band, Paul Thorn can obviously go anywhere he likes musically and thankfully continues to make all the right choices. We can only hope that A Long Way From Tupelo puts the lie to the name he chose for his record label--Perpetual Obscurity. • Michael Ross
read our 2006 interview with Paul Thorn