Naming an album after the place it was recorded is a common practice of course, but Stephen Kellogg covers all his geographical bases with South, West, North, East, his first album since 2013’s well-received Blunderstone Rookery and only his second since his go-to band The Sixers went on hiatus at the end of 2012. For the record, Kellogg and company were an outstanding ensemble, a rootsier version of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers if you will, but even so, Kellogg had a well-established solo career a full decade before the Sixers took flight. Consequently, he was well-equipped to carry on after their unfortunate demise. Likewise, given his guiding role at the band’s helm, it was all but assured that his individual intents would remain intact.
True to the sprawling designs referenced in its title, South, West, North, East comes across like an epoch effort, thanks to the memorable melodies that are etched in practically every one of its 20 songs. Spread across two discs, the material glows with a low lit intensity that makes even slow-burning ballads like “Almost Woke You Up,” “The Open Heart,” and “Those Kids” resonate with both resilience and reserve. Opener “High Horse” is the most spirited offering overall, a compelling track that makes “Best of Me” a close second. Even so, it’s the reverential chorus of “Wallpaper Angel” that leaves one of the album’s most enduring impressions.
And that’s just disc one.
The songs that follow maintain that same sense of sanctity, and even though the tempos are slowed and the deliberation increased, the emotional impact is equally assured. Here again, Kellogg crafts songs that beg attention through a slow build rather than initial exertion, and with “Greta Girl,” “Wolf” and “Always Gonna Want You,” that twin sense of yearning and desire resonates with every heartfelt refrain. In the liner notes Kellogg goes to great length to detail the specific circumstances surrounding the actual recording and the various locales where the sessions took place, but even so, the results carry a mostly consistent tone, one that’s somber yet assured, conveyed mostly through a whisper rather than a roar.
That the former should take precedence over the latter would seem a natural occurrence given Kellogg’s current role as solo troubadour as opposed to leader of a pack. Fortunately, his melodic sensibilities are heightened to such a degree that the Sixers are rarely missed. The ambiance and arrangements that underscore these songs keep the emotional momentum churning, even in the most subdued settings. It may seem tiresome to call this album a triumph, but that’s what it is all the same. An attentive hearing makes that somewhat apparent on the initial encounter, but with subsequent listens that conclusion is fully affirmed.