If finding common ground sounds like an ambitious prospect inthese profoundly polarized times, that’s because, quite frankly, itis. But with his extraordinary new album,The UnitedState, Wellshas managed to transcend politics and race and religion and tapinto something far deeper, something infinitely more primal andtimeless. Recorded with acclaimed producer Duane Lundy (RingoStarr, Sturgill Simpson’s Sunday Valley, Joe Pug), the collectionexplores our innate humanity and everything that comes with it:the joy, the sorrow, the ecstasy, the pain, the hope, the fear. Wells’songs speak to the universal truths that bind us, empatheticallyleaping between perspectives as they reckon with personalgrowth and existential quandaries. The arrangements here arerich and ethereal to match, balancing lush sonic landscapes withstark acoustic meditations. The result is a subtly revelatoryrecord, a gripping, cinematic album full of small moments andsharp insights that add up to nothing short of life itself. “Ultimately,this album’s about unity,” says Wells. “It’s about the commonthread that connects us all.” After spending his childhood inBlanchard, LA, Wells moved with his family to Cynthiana,Kentucky as a youngster. Growing up in the rural South, herebelled against the commercial country music that surroundedhim, instead preferring the trippy psychedelia of Pink Floyd andthe brash energy of Guns N’ Roses. After an aimless couple ofyears trying to put a band together in rural Kentucky, he moved toLexington, and immediately launched the cult favorite Southernrock band Fifth on the Floor. The group released a couple ofwell-received independent records before teaming up withShooter Jennings on their breakout third album, 2013’sAshes &Angels, which debuted on the Billboard Country charts.While the record earned raves and helped land the band dates with the likesof Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and BlackberrySmoke, it would prove to be the group’s last, and following a pairof hometown farewell shows, the four-piece split for good. “Whenthat band broke up, it kicked me in the teeth. We’d spent yearsclawing upward, and suddenly there was no wind, no sails,” saysWells. “That had been my dream since I was a teenager, and allof my eggs were in that basket. There was no backup plan.”
With the rug suddenly pulled out from under him, Wells foundhimself in freefall. Rather than succumb to the disappointment,though, he decided to write his way through the heartache,emerging stronger and more creatively invigorated on the otherside with his solo debut,Dawn in the Distance. Therecord (andits subsequent touring) prompted the best reviews of Wells’career, withRolling Stonehailing his “gift for melody”andSavingCountry Musicpraising his “stunning insight and honesty.”Thealbum reached #3 on Amazon’s Alt-Country/Americana chart, andsongs from the collection racked up more than a million streamson Spotify alone.
When it came time to work on a follow-up, Wells decided to fliphis entire writing process on its head. Instead of penningwhatever music just happened to come to mind, he crafted anentire architecture and sequence for the record in advance,following it like a road map as he wrote about what it meant to behuman, to be caring, to love yourself and your fellow man, flawsand all. “Tribalism is the name of the game at this point,” saysWells. “‘Divided’ is a cliche. But if you zoom out, we all bleed thesame, we all laugh the same, we all cry the same. There’s thiscommon path that all of our lives follow: birth, being a dumbass kid, thinking you’re falling in love, actually falling in love, starting afamily. Worrying about paying the bills, death, whatever comesnext.” Writing the album was a slower and more deliberateprocess than Wells had ever experienced, and the recordingsessions unfolded in a similarly methodical fashion. After brothersDaxx (Cheap Trick) and Miles Nielsen (Miles Nielsen and TheRusted Hearts) laid down rhythm tracks in Rockford, IL, Wells andLundy cut vocals and guitars in Lexington with Laur Joamets(Sturgill Simpson, Drivin’ N Cryin’) and Alex Muñoz (Margo Price,Nikki Lane). GRAMMY-nominatedproducer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Justin Craig, meanwhile,contributed additional guitar and percussion parts from his NewYork City studio, and a slew of Wells’ friends and collaboratorsjoined forces to help put the finishing touches on things back in Kentucky.
That communal spirit is the heart and soul ofTheUnited Statewhich nods to our shared humanity with a stark, black and whiteportrait of an elderly woman on the cover, a lifetime of struggleand resilience and heartbreak and love etched in the lines on herface. After opening with an ethereal instrumental movement thatradiates all the warmth and safety of the womb, the collectionbegins in earnest with “The Screaming Song,” a bittersweetmeditation on the wonder and the terror that accompanies ourentrance into this world. “It won’t be the last time I am on my own,” Wells sings in his rich, honeyed drawl, at once capturing both the infinite beauty and unfathomable sadness that awaitseach of us at birth. The record works its way through lifechronologically, as a series of snapshots of formative momentsfrom a variety of narrators connected by their shared humanity.“No Time For A Broken Heart” recalls the playful country funk of The Band’s “Cripple Creek” as it celebrates the freedom of youth,while the tender “Some Distance From It All” taps into the eternalteenage quest for independence and identity, and the boisterous“Never Better” learns the difference between lust and love thehard way. As exuberant as the record begins, there’s a distinctmaturing on the album’s second half, which finds adolescencegiving way to adulthood. The soulful “After The Fall” andR&B-tinged “It’ll All Work Out” revel in the power of grown-uplove, while the breezy “Temporary Blue” and driving “Walls FallDown” reflect on the growth and responsibility that come withraising a family of your own, and the hypnotic “Ruby” and dreamy“The Bridge” approach death with a calm acceptance, passingpeacefully from this life to the next. “On my own,on my own, ’til Isee you again, I am on my own,” Wells sings, bringingthe wholejourney full circle. “Birth and death, they’re just transitions,” hemuses. “There’s comfort there.”
We may never truly understand what happens when we shuffle offthis mortal coil. Hell, we may never truly understand whathappens while we’re here. But withThe United StateJustin Wellshas crafted an essential soundtrack to the journey