Album Review: Charles Wesley Godwin – ‘Seneca’

The short version: There’s a refined boldness to Charles Wesley Godwin’s debut album, ‘Seneca,’ that suggests he’ll be around for a lot longer, if not the next big thing. In other words, ‘Seneca’ is an early contender for one of 2019’s best albums.

  • Favorite tracks: “(Windmill) Keep On Turning,” “Seneca Creek,” “Hardwood Floors,” “Here In Eden,” “Coal Country,” “The Last Bite”
  • Least favorite track: “Shrinks and Pills”
  • Rating: 9/10

The long version: It’s admittedly hard to get excited about a debut album.

Granted, it’s not like the buzz surrounding West Virginia native Charles Wesley Godwin was unwarranted. Those who remember Union Sound Treaty will remember Godwin’s name, and now, he’s stepped out into the spotlight to deliver an ode to his hometown of Morgantown. When comparisons to Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers and Colter Wall were coming into play, the pressure was on to see if Godwin could match all of this hype.

On his debut album, Seneca, Godwin delivers an album that defies all expectations. The aforementioned comparisons are fair, but there’s more of a refined boldness to Godwin’s debut album that surpasses those same influences, leading to an album that truly sounds unique overall. In other words, Seneca is an early contender for one of 2019’s best albums.

Seneca is a rare example of where I’m forced to resort to nitpicks in order to find anything to critique about this album, so let’s start with them. After the first five tracks, the album does seem to lose a little bit of the same rush it had, but that’s only because those first five tracks are absolutely excellent and set an extremely high bar. But something like “Half A Heart” feels like it’s missing an extra verse to tie it all together, and “Pour It On” suffers most from being repetitive toward its end. The only weaker track among the bunch is “Shrinks and Pills,” an interesting concept that speaks to the motive for writing songs but also tries to inject humor into a song that could have afforded to play things a bit darker in composition. The lazier feel of it contributes nicely as a moment of levity, but overall it’s one of the weaker tracks here where Godwin’s vocals get drowned out by the production. Of course, that’s also a note on Godwin’s enunciation, something that will likely be improved with more projects anyway.

But that’s about it, because otherwise, Seneca is an incredibly enriching album with beautiful imagery and poignant storytelling. Godwin’s the kind of writer who not only sets a great, vivid scene for listeners (even for those like me who don’t know the Appalachia all that well), but also guides them through vivid stories. The language is old fashioned, and the scenes often take place years before now, but that’s another part of the point for Seneca.

To say the characters on this album are handed a bad hand would be massively understating it. From the pain that lingers on for the widow of a mine worker on “Sorry For The Wait” to a widower who watches his work fade away with time on “Seneca Creek,” there’s a loneliness that permeates this record, both in scope and atmosphere.

But the thing with these characters is that they never wallow in their misery. The command and spirit of the land they inhabit is so entrenched in their bones that they can’t leave, not that they want to anyway. Things couldn’t get worse for these characters from our perspective on tracks like “(Windmill) Keep On Turning” and “Coal Country,” yet they’re thankful just for a chance to survive and make something out of a little. It’s what makes the buildup of a night out on the town on “Hardwood Floors” feel like such a cathartic experience both for us and them, because it’s a simple experience we might take for granted. Yet for them, having someone to lean on in tough times can make all the difference between giving up and hanging on.

It’s also that old time imagery and storytelling that gives this project such a confident, mature feel. “Strawberry Queen” is a simple love song that reads like an old traditional ballad unearthed for our pleasure.

Yet Seneca is not wrapped up in its own world. It exposes the listener to a world they may not, nor ever, know, yet it also ropes them in and makes them understand why this land is so special. It’s the kind of spirit that will make sure these people hang on until the very bitter end, something surely evident on “The Last Bite.” Of course, it’s not like the answer is left completely up to that spirit either. There’s an appreciation for the rich history of the land that sneaks its way in to many tracks here. “Here In Eden” feels like the metaphorical passing of a torch between Godwin’s ancestors and himself, and “Seneca Creek” is just an incredibly heartbreaking story that follows a timeline set in the ’40s all the way to the end of a life in the ’90s.

Of course, another part of what makes Seneca such a striking listen is its excellent production. There’s a professional quality to the recordings, but that’s not the same things as “smooth” or “polished.” No, instead, Seneca is an album where everything clicks into place at the right time. From the darker, grimier feel of “Windmill (Keep On Turning)” with that sludgy harmonica play, the pick up in tempo on “Hardwood Floors” that acts as a true moment of levity, the softer piano and fiddle anchoring the warm, “Coal Country,” those horns that kick in right at the climax of “The Last Bite” when the last bullet has fallen – Seneca paints pictures with words and atmosphere.

There’s also Godwin himself as a vocalist. “Powerful” may not be the right word for him, but “commanding” certainly is. Despite these albums featuring stories with characters, Seneca is, at its core, Godwin’s narrative, and there’s a rugged earnestness to his delivery that speaks to that. There’s also the hidden implication that while he won’t be the one to complain about the land he loves, those hard times aren’t what his fellow townspeople should experience, and if nothing else, let’s at least help change things for them.

Seneca is one of those albums you didn’t know could exist until it actually does. It’s an incredible auto-biographical journey into the Appalachian life wrapped in traditional storytelling, excellent production and a stellar interpreter behind the wheel of it all. With Seneca, Godwin has made his mark on the country music landscape, and it won’t be long until he’s on everyone’s radar.

(Decent to strong 9/10)

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