I’ve always found it interesting that the American audience, and perhaps this is true across all cultures, demands not just the art, but also the artist. We need some sort of narrative of the artist’s life with which we can forge an emotional connection. For example: “She’s from a small town just like me!” or “He’s so troubled and strange!” This demand brings artists for whom the presentation of self becomes part of the art, like Bob Dylan or David Bowie, and the tragic trope of artists who buckle under the pressure of putting so much of themselves out there for public consumption, like Elvis Presley or Kurt Cobain. That same demand, of course, can also bring an added layer of appreciation for the art.
2015 Savannah Revival Fest veteran Parker Millsap’s story is that he’s very young to be playing the type of music he plays and that he grew up in a Pentecostal church. His full-throated, soulful voice that alternately bellows and croons and his emotionally and thematically mature lyrics belie the mere 23 years the Oklahoma native has kicked around the Christ-haunted belly of America. It’s so perplexing, the story goes, that someone so young and from that specific upbringing could be producing this music. On The Very Last Day, the follow-up to his 2014 self-titled debut, Millsap delivers a damn fine set of tunes that only make me appreciate him and his story more.
Part of the appeal of Millsap’s latest effort is the journey on which he takes his listeners. It’s a journey that spans multiple American musical traditions and themes. Here we find blues, folk, country, gospel, and rock & roll, as well as persecution, temptation, sin, and salvation. Album opener “Hades Pleads” rumbles and rattles like a freight train to hell. Fear not. Millsap closes the album by taking us to church on “Tribulation Hymn,” a track that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on Bruce Springsteen’s lo-fi masterpiece Nebraska.
Between the album’s opening and closing cuts, Millsap gleefully welcomes the end times on “The Very Last Day,” takes a sympathetic look at a stickup artist on the shit-kicking “Hands Up,” and ponders the redemptive power of fire on the gentle, finger-picked “A Little Fire.” Then there’s the brooding, minor key “Heaven Sent,” a live cut of which has been floating around the internet for a few years now. In it, a young man who is gay explains to his minister father that he “ain’t some kind of creature/ from some old double feature.” I was relieved to see “Heaven Sent” made the album, as it may just be the strongest tune Millsap has written yet.
Elsewhere on the new album, Millsap shows off his versatility, effortlessly transitioning from one subgenre of American music to another. “Wherever You Are” is a Heartland Rock stomper with an anthemic chorus that would make John Mellencamp jealous. On the very next track, the traditional American spiritual “You Gotta Move,” Millsap picks out some eight-bar blues. With his voice drenched in delay, the track calls to mind Robert Plant on the early Led Zeppelin albums.
While Millsap might not be reinventing the wheel on this set of tunes, it would also be unfair to call them derivative. His approach to songwriting is too forward-thinking and fresh to be called derivative. He’s someone who has felt the power of progress, yet he still finds himself in a landscape haunted by ghosts and God. On The Very Last Day, Millsap grapples with that paradox, and in doing so, further endears himself, and his story, to his audience.