An album that casually flirts with being personal—but never makes a move.
The solo debut by Port O’Brien and Waters singer Van William (neé Pierszalowski), Countries is a little on the generic side. Universality often comes at the cost of self-exploration in art, and while can is a charm to such everyman qualities, William has made an album that casually flirts with being personal—but never makes a move. With his name front and center, you get the sense that William opted to play it safe for fear of being too vulnerable and running the risk of not connecting. The problem is, the less specific about your own experiences you get, the less people see themselves in your music.
If you’ve heard indie folk on the radio in the last decade or so, the palette on Countries will sound familiar. Replete with “woah-oh”’s and such lyrics as, “Time moves so quickly/ I know you won’t miss me” and “I never knew who I was before I found you”– and a First Aid Kit feature for good measure–nothing about the album is cause for surprise or alarm.
Take, for example, “The Country,” a concept about which William sings throughout the album. What this means to him is never really explained, and the song comes off as something that was meant to be political (“You said nothing ever turns around in the country/ Can’t take another year, I can hope but I can’t shake this fear”), but ends up feeling like it hasn’t taken a side.
Yet although it isn’t a challenging record, Countries is a surprising grower, as it goes down so easily that it has more of a chance to work its way into your brain. Repeat listens drive home that each and every song has at least one good-to-great hook, which helps redeem its lack of substance. For instance, “Fourth of July” is the best power-pop Tom Petty pastiche you could ask for in 2018, and “Don’t Take My Love” is William at his most infectious, trading the indie-folk tones for a brooding drum/bass-centric groove, an outlier on the album. He even makes minor headway in letting the listener in on the penultimate track, “Cosmic Sign.” As he sings, “I took a Greyhound bus from Texas to Louisiana/ And I chased a girl I barely knew all the way to Atlanta,” you get brief details of incidents to which you wish he’s devote entire songs, but he leaves them as mere sketches that leave you hanging on–perhaps the most infuriating thing about the album.
Countries exemplifies the pros and cons of inoffensive, generic music. Almost everything enjoyable about it can be found on your nearest Lumineers or Noah & the Whale album, but this is what happens when a charming and a not-half-bad songwriter is given the same building blocks. William clearly knows how to make music that sounds good; what he needs to work on is the courage to take the kind of risks that can only make him better.