Album Review: John Paul White – ‘The Hurting Kind’

The short version: I‘ll admit ‘The Hurting Kind’ has some noticeable flaws to it, but I like this project in spite of them anyway.

  • Favorite tracks: “James,” “The Good Old Days,” “The Long Way Home,” “My Dreams Have All Come True,” “The Hurting Kind”
  • Least favorite track: “Heart Like A Kite”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: There’s no way I can start this review without bringing up that elephant in the room, is there?

Truthfully, though, it’s hard not to bring up the Civil Wars when discussing John Paul White. There’s always been the mystery surrounding the duo’s end, but there’s an even bigger mystery surrounding White himself. He never really brought himself back into the spotlight until 2016’s Beulah, which, in itself, only brought further questions as to what direction White would go in from there.

Yet I never would have suspected the answer to that last question would be ’60s-era country music. White has stated his new album, The Hurting Kind, is very much an album he wanted to make after noticing that style wasn’t prevalent in the current musical landscape anymore. While I’d argue he needs to start listening to Dee White or Yola, the move intrigued me, if nothing more than for a listen out of pure curiosity.

This is a rare instance where I’ll need to separate my personal faculties from my critical ones, because on paper, The Hurting Kind is an enjoyable love letter to a classic sound, but little more than a one-off event. Yet with every re-listen I gave this album, the more I found myself enjoying not only the presentation of this style, but White’s own spin on it.

And even as a fan of the Civil Wars, I’ll say that between this album and his own contribution on 2016’s Southern Family, White has never sounded as soulful as he does here. Now, that comes with the caveat that my definition of soulful or enchanting will likely be someone else’s definition of boring, and I’ll admit this album tests that limit at times. But beyond just the nods to Roy Orbison at times in the inflections, this is an album that, underneath all the lush strings and violins, sounds purely somber.

But The Hurting Kind also shows White testing his limits more than ever before (or more than was ever allowed). First, there’s the wailing crescendo at the end of “I Wish I Could Write You A Song,” but his delivery on “My Dreams Have All Come True” is particularly unsettling, as is his delivery on the title track. Basically, it’s an album where the nod to its influences is prevalent, but that’s also the point. I’d argue White’s able to add a fresh perspective to this style on the sheer talent of his power and range. It’s saying something that he’s able to match Lee Ann Womack excellently on “This Isn’t Gonna End Well.”

Also, with the nod to this particular era in country music, you know what to expect if you know your history – sunny, lush strings, fiddles with tons of texture and personality courtesy of Lillie Mae, barroom piano drifting in the background to keep things rolling, and steel guitar to accentuate the melodies. Yet The Hurting Kind never sounds particularly lighthearted. Instead, it dwells in its misery, enough to where I can easily see this being too dark or dull for someone’s tastes.

But for me, the album hits its mark. “Yesterday’s Love” hits the bull’s-eye in terms of a good representative of the era just off that introduction alone. But this album also flirts with more modern textures, evident in opener “The Good Old Days” and “The Long Way Home.” The jangly guitars keep the tempo rolling, but are blended with minor chords to keep it grounded in its moodiness. On pure melody alone, though, these two tracks are among the highlights.

Lyrics are probably the only element of this album that aren’t quite substantial, but they have their moments. If anything, they’re indicative of the era the album emulates, with drama playing a particularly important role in the development of some of these tracks. Still, this album’s main selling point is in its style and in White as a performer, and that shows here. But to complement the album’s darker tones, the songs mostly dwell in heartbreak territory. Sometimes, however, White is on the other side of the fence, like how he’s the one ending things off on “You Lost Me” after catching his lover cheating in the act.

Still, the songs are solidly written for what they are. The details may not always be there, but again, that big dramatic moment is usually there. It says more about White as a performer that he’s able to inject more personality and life into the stakes of these songs than any specific details of the songs themselves, for instance.

The one standout here in this department, though, is “James,” reportedly inspired by Glen Campbell not only in style, but also in its framing. Told from the perspective of an older father suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other type of memory loss, it shows how the disease affects not only the family members, but the actual victim as well.

Again, not every moment sticks the landing. “Heart Like A Kite” meanders instrumentally and vocally, and the multi-tracking to start off the title track isn’t particularly appealing. Also, for an album that revels in its nostalgic tendencies on sonic cohesion and lyrical perspective, it’s ironic that this album starts off with a song criticizing those exact elements.

Perhaps the most disappointing part, however, is that this album will be looked at as merely an experiment or something White needed to get out of his system. That may be true to an extent, but he’s able to transcend beyond his influences on The Hurting Kind as well. Even if you enjoy this particular style, I wouldn’t say the album’s dreariness makes it the most accessible listen out there. Personally, though, that’s the appeal of it right there for me. I’ll admit I probably like The Hurting Kind more than I should, but I’d also argue White has improved substantially as a performer to carry over into whatever new direction he pursues in the future.

(Decent 8/10)

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