White’s evolution is interesting in itself, but fortunately the album would be memorable even as a one-off.
The Civil Wars sounded like they were fit to last forever, sharp lyrics delivered with perfect harmonies. The duo’s use of Americana for their own songwriting felt natural, occasionally drifting toward indie-folk, sometimes Appalachian and frequently gaining a classic pop sound. With a handful of Grammy awards, critical acclaim and commercial success, the pair were at the start of a long and influential run. They made two albums and broke up.
Five years later, we’re mostly over it, and right now might be the season when we move on. Both John Paul White and Joy Williams have new albums out, the second post-breakup solo record for each, depending on how you count Williams’ Venus variations. On his side, White makes a natural shift, moving away from the sort of Americana tones he’d made a career of and toward a more classic Nashville sound. If Williams headed for the front porch (one that’s cleaned up), White took himself to a countrypolitan studio.
A few tracks epitomize the shift. “Heart Like a Kite” could have come from anywhere in the last 50 years of Nashville, a slow track that watches a heart slowly break as White worries about the time when he’ll “run out of string.” The arrangement keeps some space in it—he doesn’t give in to the full lushness of his countrypolitan influence—but it knows just when to bring in that steel guitar. “This Isn’t Gonna End Well” combines White with Lee Ann Womack for a big duet. The orchestration and the vocal approach each position White firmly in his new musical camp.
Of course, the strength of the album comes not just from White so effectively adopting some new sounds. It comes through the strength of his songwriting. Bobby Braddock gets co-writing credit for “This Isn’t Gonna End Well,” helping build the straight-line connection between White and George Jones. Bill Anderson makes a couple appearances, too, but The Hurting Kind comes, as expected, from White, with the couple guest credits merely a bonus. The title of “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” suggests it simply enters another number into the writing-about-writing category, but White reaches deep for a moving piece. He blends lines like, “I wish, I wish you could climb in my heart/ Down where the real feelings are/ You’d hear a real work of art,” with his band’s controlled swells to depict not only his longing and frustration, but also his wholeness in near consummation.
The title track connects the White’s previous work with this new direction. It has more folk-pop than anything else on the disc, but it doesn’t back away from Nashville. White sounds at home here, and it’s a reminder of how comfortable he is in a simple setting, without any of the flourishes around him on the rest of the disc. Maybe it’s that comfort that keeps the bigger sound well heeled, an approach that keeps The Hurting Kind grounded even as it pursues new ambitions. White’s evolution is interesting in itself, but fortunately the album would be memorable even as a one-off.