Invoking the name of Johnny Cash can easily come off as an attempt to cash in on the legacy of one of music’s greatest icons (see: Jason Aldean’s “Johnny Cash”), but the spirit of The Man in Black is corporeal on Shawn Mullins’ thirteenth studio album, Light You Up.
Haunting album highlight “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” paints the late country star as a patron saint of the downtrodden, through stunning lyrics that amount to breathtaking poetry: “Some sinners need their saints to be survivors of the fall/’Cause when you’re down here on your knees most angels look too tall,” sings Mullins, in a quiet growl. “So I’ll just live this life out, dust to dust and ash to ash/With my guide from the other side, the ghost of Johnny Cash.”
Mullins doesn’t sing of this allegiance to the House of Cash only on “Ghost.” All of his songwriting—fearless, gritty and plump with stories about sin and redemption—owes a debt to Cash, Kristofferson and their ilk.
“I turned 17 in the spring of 1861/I killed 20 men ‘fore I turned 21,” he sings on “Catoosa County,” a breathtaking tale of a young civil war soldier who would, “Place a hundred million dollar bounty/On the hate that makes the wars and digs the graves of Catoosa County.”
Mullins’ veracity and eye for detail bring his songs to life in brilliant color, whether affecting chunks of Americana or more light-hearted fare; the album’s up-tempos, such as the sex-powered rocker “Light You Up,” are just as fully-formed as its more thematically adventurous numbers.
Ultimately, however, it’s Mullins’ ability to call forth a spirit, to capture the hopelessness of an economically battered community (as he does on “Can’t Remember Summer”), or to make you smell the black powder and flesh emanating from a Georgia battlefield that are his greatest strengths.
He’s a capable pop star, but an engrossing storyteller.
Wrapped up in sparse, organic arrangements that remind of Cash’s late-life American recordings, the songs on Light You Up are fresh, incisive and wonderfully crafted.
Light You Up isn’t just captivating—it’s essential.