Out of Tunes
Newcomer doesn't have much to say but says it anyway
By Michael McCall
NOVEMBER 23, 1998: The tone of Shawn Mullins' voice pulls you in. Especially on pop radio, where even the saddest songs have a certain stridency, Mullins' world-weary, spoken-word style stands out. With the rest of the world screaming for attention, Mullins has the guts to whisper. By doing so, he has found himself with one of the most unlikely hits of 1998.
There's no mistaking Mullins' "Lullaby" when it rises like a late-night curl of smoke amid the aggressively bright and emphatic sound of most modern pop hits. For those yearning to hear imaginative, real-life lyrics on corporate radio stations, Mullins' emphasis on story and tone at first sounds like a breakthrough. Listen closely, however, and you'll find that his stories are about as substantial as that wisp of smoke. His manner suggests a serious songwriter at work, but his lyrics don't deliver on that promise.
The omnipresent "Lullaby"--currently a top-10 hit on MTV, VH1, and nearly every rock and adult-pop radio format--provides a perfect introduction to Mullins' repertoire. To a Wallflowers-like approximation of '70s soul-influenced rock, the singer-songwriter spins a tale of a traveling musician who spies a spoiled rich girl pouting in the audience. From the stage, Mullins perceives that this beautiful woman is troubled, so he approaches her after the show. He's in Hollywood, naturally. She grew up among celebrities--naturally--and she's rich and sad and spiritually adrift. He's poor and gifted and knows just what to say--of course.
Surely, many men have tried to save her, but Mullins manages to break through. How? By singing, "Everything's gonna be all right/Rockabye/Rockabye." Damn. If only somebody had sung nursery rhymes to her as a baby, maybe everything would have been all right.
It's not that Mullins never delivers a good line. Describing Los Angeles, the 30-year-old Atlanta native sings, "Seems like everyone here's got a plan/It's kinda like Nashville with a tan." But clever couplets are rare amid his clichd tales of noble drifters, winos, and waitresses.
It's too bad his songs lack substance, for Mullins' rise to prominence is a compelling story. After the singer-songwriter spent a decade creating his own self-produced and self-distributed CDs, a powerful Atlanta disc jockey heard "Lullaby" and began playing it on the radio. The song became hugely successful in Georgia, so Columbia Records signed Mullins and put a new shine on his self-made music. Before he knew it, he had a national hit.
Like thousands of would-be Kerouacs, the shaggy-haired Mullins finds romance in rambling. He name-checks second-generation beat writer Richard Brautigan and references John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, but to no purpose other than to show that he knows the names. Mullins simply retreads old tales that have been told too often, and he adds nothing to make them new again.
In "Twin Rocks, Oregon," he comes across an alcoholic hobo on the side of the road, who is of course wise and content. Within moments of their chance meeting, the songwriter and the bedraggled fellow are sharing a joint and a bottle of Mad Dog. Amazing revelations follow. "He turned that bottle up and down/I saw him lost, and I saw him found." Pretty perceptive, eh?
Apparently, the pot was potent stuff, for both the bum and the songwriter share a revelation. "I don't know what I've been looking for," the drifter says somberly. "Maybe me." Next chorus--shazam!--the songwriter makes the same observation.
That's how it goes throughout the album: Mullins is perpetually on the road, and he's perpetually shelling out nuggets of supposed wisdom to those he encounters along the way. It's as if he fancies himself a living cast member of Touched By an Angel, traveling from town to town quietly imparting knowledge and transcendence to desperate, lost souls.
It's not an easy job, he wants us to know. "Sometimes we dreamers just get in the way," he intones while stoned in San Francisco in "Anchored in You." He makes a point of showing just how brave and strong people think he is for living as a kind of Lone Ranger cum Woody Guthrie. Apparently, "all the people" tell him he's "got balls to play the game that way."
Balls, he's got plenty. Something to say, that's a whole other bag of dope. Mullins repeatedly mentions pot in his songs, and both the parched quality of his husky whisper and the stoner quality of his observations suggest that Mullins might need to monitor his intake--or at least throw away some of his more marijuana-laced journal entries.
Mullins obviously strives to write songs with a literary emphasis. In press materials, he cites Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron, and Steve Earle as influences. Another idol, Kris Kristofferson, provides the album's only cover song, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." As it turns out, the strength and originality of Kristofferson's observational writing provides the perfect contrast to Mullins, who never comes up with anything near as vivid or powerful as Kristofferson's story.
Even when Mullins strains to copy his heroes, he shows just how much he has to learn. Consider the following line from "The Gulf of Mexico": "Freedom's just a metaphor, you got nowhere to go." It's a pale--and obvious--rewrite of Kristofferson's famous line, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," from "Me and Bobby McGee."
In the end, Mullins can't get past stereotypes and hackneyed philosophizing. His women are all passive and melancholy; they want lives other than the ones they have. His men are all rugged, wise, and struggling to live free--in other words, rootless and alone, like him. "I've always known since I was a child," he sings early on, "that the road is my home and my spirit is wild." Maybe that's the case, but judging from his songcraft, he's still got some growing up to do.
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