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Review: Josh Kelley, 'New Lane Road'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Josh Kelley, <em>New Land Road</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Josh Kelley, New Land Road

Is there a more flexible medium than pop music? Its inherent fluidity gives artists the space to continually reinvent themselves, their narratives, even their pasts. But for those music-makers who've been in the spotlight long enough to accrue a bit of history in the popular memory, the need to display some sort of momentum becomes more urgent. Think of all the times you've heard performers describe their latest projects as their Most Personal/Daring/Accomplished Work Ever, framing self-disclosure, risk-taking and renewed embrace of their roots as signs of growth. We've seen plenty of different versions of this lately: Zayn Malik putting boy-band uniformity behind him, Sturgill Simpson distancing himself from the hallucinatory musings some might expect, Anthony Hamilton circling back to the grainy Southern sound on which he built his name. The way Josh Kelley is renegotiating his relationship to his younger musical self shows every bit as much commitment.

When Kelley first came on the pop-rock singer-songwriter scene in the early '00s, the marketplace was flush with young guys who fused slickness and sincerity in bankable ways; early on, he couldn't shake the John Mayer comparisons. But at an intimate living-room showcase in Nashville in early April, Kelley emphasized how green he'd been back in those days — how he had, in fact, initially sought a country recording contract and only settled on a West Coast pop career when Nashville didn't pan out. Earlier this decade, he finally made a country album called Georgia Clay; in its title track, Kelley waxed nostalgic about small-town contentment. The tune was written with his younger brother Charles, whose own pop-country trio, Lady Antebellum, was ruling country radio at the time.

By comparison, New Lane Road is an act of creative self-sufficiency; the elder Kelley not only wrote or co-wrote every song, but also produced, engineered and played multiple instruments. To record the album, Kelley holed up in his studio in Utah, where he lives with his actress wife Katherine Heigl and their two children, for much of the process. The result, not surprisingly, is an unfussy collection of soft rock, soul, adult pop and country from an artist who's spent years stocking his musical bag of tricks.

Throughout its dozen tracks, Kelley dwells on how accumulating life experience and forging significant attachments can transform slight insights into something more. He trots out thoroughly familiar fixations — feeling your mortality ("One Foot In the Grave"), seizing the day ("Life's Too Short"), being saved from a solitary existence by a steadfast lover ("The Rock Who Found A Rollin' Stone") — with warmth that lends them each new impact. Kelley performs "The Best Of Me," a slow-burning, steel-guitar-laced ode to being emboldened by a life partner, with a dignity made subtler and more affecting by its softness around the edges. "New Lane Road" stirs together nostalgia, patriotism and responsibility; there's even a recording of his dad talking about being a good steward of the earth that you farm.

The brisk, synth-powered flirtation "Anywhere You Wanna Go" and "Call It What It Is," with its jauntily polished arrangement, are about as lighthearted as New Lane Road gets — and even then, Kelley is a fair distance from the impish upstart he was in his early 20s. He's said that he was listening to world-class soul men and singer-songwriters during the making of New Lane Road; that he sought to emulate the likes of Otis Redding, Al Green, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty for the way they soulfully accessed authentic emotions. "I wanna feel a little somethin' real," Kelley declares during his own blue-eyed-soul turn, "Take It On Back." That it's also a little something different for him is exactly the point. You can hear him working out his own definition of maturity.

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