On the title track of his second album on Archer Records, ‘Scars’, John Kilzer sings: “…And may you learn to love the scars.” He may well have been singing about his own rich and varied life, which has followed a redemptive story-arc, from being signed to a major label in the late ‘80s, through substance abuse and addiction in the 90’s and then ministry and supporting others in their recovery in the 21st century. All this experience is in evidence in Kilzer’s wearied, characterful vocals and mature, emotional songwriting.
Kilzer has serious pedigree, having signed for Geffen Records in 1988 and having written for the likes of Trace Adkins and Rosanne Cash; his composition, ‘Green, Yellow and Red’ appeared on Cash’s highly acclaimed ‘King’s Record Shop’. However, thirty years on, this engaging new record shows that Kilzer remains capable of delivering quality, soulful Americana.
The opener, ‘Flat Bed Truck’, is a pleasant, upbeat, radio-friendly song that shows off Kilzer’s vocal range. His singing is effortless and smooth throughout the rising and catchy melody. In truth, though, this song is not as arresting or interesting as the second number, ‘The American Blues’, which is the first single from the album and would, perhaps, have been a more attention-grabbing start. With lines like: “The tweeter bird sings but he can’t fly…”, this is the album’s most political song, a commentary on the state of modern America. ‘The American Blues’ stands out stylistically with its electric bluesy feel, funky bass guitar and echoed vocal effect. The song is well-crafted and Kilzer knows the value of finding the spaces within the music to draw the listener in.
Kilzer often sequences the songs to intentionally bring out the sonic contrasts. The next track, ‘Hello Heart’, is slower, beginning with lighter percussion, gentle finger-picking and an almost-whispered vocal. Like many of the songs, it’s clever lyrically and he creates engaging, atmospheric images, such as: “Pale sky, thumbnail moon.” It’s no surprise that Kilzer has a Masters degree in English literature and actually taught English at Memphis State University for several years. On this, and on several of the other songs, there’s a strong bass high in the mix. The bass is really effective again in the next song, one of the album’s highlights, ‘Woods of Love’. Once again, this track has plenty of narrative details and powerful images, such as the night: “…starting to bleed.” The gravelly vocal performance and melody are strong, grabbing and holding attention throughout.
Kilzer’s gritty, plaintive singing voice is a real feature of all the remaining songs, particularly on the slow, piano-led ballad, ‘Time’, the title track and the album closer, ‘Rope the Moon’. His vocal is emotional and world-weary, perfect for storytelling and the open-hearted lyrics. ‘Scars’ is a high point on the album, with a beautiful vocal melody over gentle finger-picking guitar. It’s an ultimately hopeful, positive song, which reflects the tone of the whole record. On the funkier ‘It’, the optimism is clear: “Love is light, love is strong, // Love is right here in this song.”
Some of these tracks are unashamedly romantic, especially ‘Twinkle of Love’, which follows the story of lovers from youthful desire through to the gentle: “…old folks holding hands,” and love lasting for eternity. On this, and ‘Rope the Moon’, the words are so earnest and the singing emotional that Kilzer keeps the listener with him.
Throughout the album, there are excellent instrumental performances and the production, by Grammy-winning Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Jason Isbell, Margo Price), is of the highest standard. The songs are varied, blending together the sounds of folk, electric blues and soul. The Reverend Dr. John Kilzer, as he is now known, runs a regular ‘recovery ministry’ at St John’s United Methodist church in Memphis; his services are focused on music and, on this showing, the Reverend has certainly found redemption in his powerfully positive songs.