REVIEW: Steve Moakler – ‘Born Ready’

The life of a troubadour has always been ripe for songwriters to explore. The sense of freedom that clashes with the isolation that life on the road brings. The sacrifices that must be made in the pursuit of the muse and the crowd. Steve Moakler has lived that life for a number of years now and documented the good and bad on songs like, ‘Wheels’ and ‘Suitcase’. New album, ‘Born Ready’ now finds him at a crossroad in his life, caught between the urge to settle down and build something and the need to take his music to the people of the world and so many of the songs on the album reflect that. And thank god they do – there is an honesty, realism and openness on ‘Born Ready’ that is sadly missing from so many albums these days. Moakler sings with an urgency about the things that mean something to him and draws you into his world in the same way that only the best artists like Eric Church, Dierks Bentley and Kip Moore can do. If there is any justice in the world, ‘Born Ready’ will see Moakler being mentioned more frequently alongside such luminaries and push this talented singer-songwriter into that next level of Country music artists, where he so obviously deserves to be.

Having previously written ‘Riser’ with Travis Meadows for Dierks Bentley it will be no surprise to find many comparisons with Dierks on ‘Born Ready’. Soulful, urgent vocals augmented by simple melodies are a trademark of both artists but I can also hear the cadence of Eric Church, the urgency of Kip Moore and the melody of Keith Urban in his work. The album begins and ends in two very contrasting ways that highlight Moakler’s strengths and his influences. The title track kick things off, all bullish & patriotic, on a tribute to the life of the American truck driver. Co-written with Luke Laid and Barry Dean, ‘Born Ready’ is a tasteful, nuanced song that was used by Mack Trucks in a recent advertising campaign. Many of its themes – the resilience, the hard work, the need to keep driving forward are also echoed on other songs on the album, namely, ‘Breaking New Ground’ and One More Troubadour’ and there is a definite Eric Church-like wobble in his vocals when he sings, ‘we’re the daybreakers, we’re the night-trainers,” in the opening bars of the song.

Final song, ‘The Last Word’, however, finds Moakler in reflective mood, using a Keith Urban-esque keyboard to underpin a very positive, quiet song about love and how it will always win out. This is Moakler’s reaction to Trump’s America and as he sings, ‘it will speak through all the silence, it will make right what’s been wrong,” you can’t help but wonder what Keith Urban would pay for a song of such depth and integrity? Maybe it would have given his recent ‘Graffiti U’ album some much needed gravitas and maturity?

Steve Moakler has that gravitas in spades. On the double-shot combo of ‘Slow Down’ and ‘Thirty’ he examines the crossroads that his life has reached right now. The former begins with a simple electric guitar riff and just Moakler’s vocals as he sings about finding something and someone who makes him finally want to plant some roots and build something whilst on the exquisite ‘Thirty’, co-written with Troy Verges and Gordie Sampson, and possibly the centre-point of the whole album, Moakler recognises that he is now, “too old to die young but too young to slow down.” A simple repetitive guitar riff plays through the song and Moakler’s heartfelt vocals bring someone like Eric Church to mind again. Speaking to Billboard recently about the song he said, “It’s about recognising where I am and my shortcomings but also realising that I’m not done yet.” The song may be about turning thirty but the theme and the tropes within could be extended to fit any major birthday or turning point in life and it’s that ‘every man’ resonance that Moakler has in his lyrics that are a real indicator that he is a huge talent to be reckoned with. You heard it when Dierks sang, ‘Riser’ but it’s here is spades on ‘Born Ready’.

You can also find evidence of it on tracks like, ‘Breaking New Ground’ and ‘Chesney’. The former explores the theme of resilience, the latter nostalgia but both have that lyrical ambiguity which means people can sing along to them whilst relating them to incidents and moments in their own lives. That is a hallmark of all the great Country music writers: vulnerability and ambiguity, the most important tools needed to be a great songwriter. ‘Chesney’, in the same way that Eric Church linked a time and place with lost love on ‘Springsteen’, sees Moakler reminiscing about days gone by and the evocative nature of an artist’s music.

Billboard magazine (lazily, in my opinion) called Steve Moakler a, ‘soulful mix of Seger and Springsteen’ and, yes, you can hear those influences on ‘Born Ready’. A track like ‘Nightlife’ is dripping in Jersey-shore, boardwalk influences and ‘Hard Not to Love It’ could be amalgam of both Seger and Springsteen on a loose, fun night out but the album is deeper than that. ‘Devices’, a track reminiscent of Eric Church’s ‘Mixed Drinks About Feelings’, takes us to Motown via Muscle Shoals and is one of my favourties on the album as Moakler takes us a little out of our Country comfort zone on a song that is a straight-down-the line, honest love song whilst ‘One of the Boys’ sees us in more modern territory with its ‘on-fleek’ drum beat and funky, repetitive guitar riff. Both tracks deal with the time-honoured issue of falling in love in wildly different ways and both are incredibly effective in what they do.

Fans of Kip Moore will find a lot to love about the way Moakler approaches his songs. Two songs really stand out for me that are similar in style to Moore. ‘Crazy Does’ sees Moakler in fun mode, singing about the crazy things in life in a clever and nuanced way. “Stays out so late on Thursday night, you can’t even catch a cab – that’s what crazy does!” The song is driven, as so many are on this album, by a simple, repetitive guitar riff that puts me mind of Kip Moore’s ‘Wild Ones’ album. Similarly, ‘One More Troubadour’ inhabits that same part of the Venn Diagram that Moore’s ‘Guitar Man’ lives in. A simple song about life on the road. ‘…Troubadour’ differs, however, in that it is built around a simple, 70’s Kenny Rogers or Glenn Campbell-esque melody, indeed, it even mentions ‘Rhinestone Cowboys’ at one point although lyrically it is very similar, echoing that sense of loneliness and isolation that being out on the road must provoke.

‘Born Ready’ is like a musical tour of the United States. There’s some Country, some Americana, some Jersey shore, some Motown and some Muscle Shoals in there. Holding it all together are Moakler’s soulful vocals and earnest, heartfelt lyrics. His ‘everyman’ style and ability to relate to real people and their lives, their dreams and their struggles is very Springsteen-esque but there is much more to him than just a Bruce wanna-be. There is a depth and individuality about Moakler that I can imagine will provoke great loyalty amongst his fans. Yes, you can hear some Dierks, some Eric, some Keith and some Kip in there – but that’s good right? Who doesn’t want that from their music in 2018, right? And what great artists to be ranked alongside. ‘Born Ready’ is Steve Moakler’s ‘coming of age’ album – he deserves to get both fan and critical acclaim alike for this open, honest and vulnerable piece of work and with the right tour partners and, definitely, a trip overseas to the UK, he can begin to build up that buzz that he so richly deserves. Keep an eye out for this guy, folks, he’s (born) ready, fully armed and hopefully heading our way very soon.

James Daykin
@rockjames