If there is one thing most of us must have done over the past 18 months is to reflect. A close second might be to ask questions, a lot of questions. But if the result is not quite a clear answer then we can all say we have something in common with Sean McConnell whose new album A Horrible Beautiful Dream reaches a similar conclusion. A deep thinker himself, he asks questions about what he believes he knows, trying to draw some order out of chaotic times. With a notable guest list on A Horrible Beautiful Dream McConnell boosts further his deserved reputation for songwriting with a sound that binds the best of country and Americana.
McConnell does not consider this a ‘pandemic album’. Sure, it was born amid chaos but with some compositions predating lockdown and others more recent he sought a kind of timelessness. He acknowledges that “time seems to breed creativity, especially when there’s very little else going on”, he isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions and recognises that “life is rarely black and white. Nor is it almost entirely grey”. He prefers ‘both/and’ to ‘either/or’ and accepts “this is what it is”.
With that open-minded approach what exactly has McConnell achieved? In a nutshell, his best yet. Possibly glib but from having written great songs for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Brett Young, Tim McGraw, The Brothers Osborne and Ashley Ray and produced for many others here he is writing and producing himself and the guests have come to him. The album features The Wood Brothers, Natalie Hemby, Audra Mae and Dan Tyminski, all testament to McConnell’s standing today.
‘I Still Believe in You’ opens the record with a big country sound. Richly produced, the curtains pull back with a flourish for McConnell’s distinctive voice that is well, like the record, timeless. At a confident tempo he strides straight into his self-examination, “nothing is easy now, not like it was before/ I built my world around something not there anymore/ and when it all fell down I found it was never true/ Don’t know what I believe, I still believe in you.”
McConnell turns his gaze inward with ‘What the Hell is Wrong With Me?’. Edgy rock electric guitars probe his doubt. Vocally he is equally agitated. Pills and booze don’t work and why is that, “some people just wake up and they feel okay?” Yet, he cuts himself some slack, moving from being a “burden, a basket case” to “learnin’ not to be my own worst enemy”. He speaks for many. Nashville’s Fancy Hagood adds to the urgency.
With Highwoman Natalie Hemby, McConnell continues his self-reflection in a quieter vein. To a more country tinge he takes a good look at himself in ‘Waiting to be Moved’. Distant keys stretch the space to match that of isolation. As the title might suggest ‘I Built You Up’ rises to a magnificently soulful crescendo as once again McConnell finds what once seemed clear is now distinctly blurred.
The Wood Brothers add a lighter touch on ‘The 13th Apostle’. Together they blend forgiveness and humour in a rousing gospel setting, “Cause I’m the thirteenth apostle just by the hair on my chin/ ‘Cause I doubt more than Thomas and I make my own bathtub gin.”
Faced with loss ‘Nothing Anymore’ searches for answers. Sonically, menace and foreboding ebb and flow as McConnell realises, “Only thing I know for sure/ Is nothing anymore”.
McConnell is always creating. He produced four albums while working on this! Finishing up in the studio with Audra Mae he asked her to listen to an idea he had for a song about missing even the least glamorous side of being on the road. Liking the idea she added harmony then Dan Tyminski, next to join McConnell came in and added mandolin. The result is ’As the Curtain Came Down’, a heartfelt lament for playing, anywhere, “I’d have stood on the stage until they cut off the sound.” At a fittingly mournful pace to layers of organ and distant harmonica they rue ever having taken touring for granted.
The album ends on a hopeful note. Whatever grimness we’ve been through, however inexplicable, we do well to ’Remember You’re Here’. To sparse acoustic picking McConnell evokes James Taylor as he muses, ‘between the what was and what may be/ Don’t forget to remember you’re here.”
There isn’t really anything further to say except listen to this very fine album, A Horrible Beautiful Dream.