Soundcheck: John Fullbright - The Liar 

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter makes his big studio return with powerhouse performances, inspired arrangements and a commitment to the road less traveled.

click to enlarge Cover art for The Liar by John Fullbright

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Cover art for The Liar by John Fullbright

Since its release at the end of September, John Fullbright’s long-awaited The Liar has carried avid word of mouth amongst loyal fans and genre listeners. Its 12 songs have gotten good marks in online music magazines, and the consensus is clear. Even though it’s been eight years since his last album, a practical eternity in the music industry, Fullbright still has it. His songwriting is sharp, his performances staggering, and his lyrics as ruminating as ever. All of the boxes are checked, but something in Fullbright has changed, something that sees him forking farther away from a music industry that has likewise moved on without him.

It isn’t that Fullbright took a vacation, per se. The recording process behind The Liar reveals that he has been building strong relationships in the Tulsa music community while taking on a series of supporting roles. Featuring a who’s who of area players, this is easily the most collaborative record of his career. That it was recorded entirely in four days further indicates that he has kept his chops up all this time. Nonetheless, he has stepped from the spotlight in the years following his early 2010’s breakthrough, which saw a Grammy nomination for his debut studio LP, From the Ground Up, and significant chart numbers on his acclaimed follow-up, Songs.

He is still a big name, as proven by his sold-out back-to-back shows at The Blue Door in OKC in celebration of The Liar’s release. He could have easily booked a bigger venue, but he didn’t. His tour schedule is also somewhat light on dates this season, at least by industry standards. This echoes one of the big changes between 2014’s Songs and 2022’s The Liar. He is more relaxed and it shows.

Opening track “Bearden 1645” is a beautifully succinct bit of lyricism about why artistic cliches are worthwhile, actually, but it also establishes that The Liar is John Fullbright at his funniest and loosest. Rather than subvert songwriting tropes in meticulously sewn verbal threads like usual, he shows all of his seams here, joking about his preference for the white keys on a piano because they are easier to play. He quips about the key he is playing in, and when the song modulates to prove a point, its punchline would smack like a novelty song were it not so sparing and concise. It’s uproarious, yet it still completely works in the context of its theme of pragmatic art.

His former self would probably find it somewhat on the nose, though. While some songs are perfect little boxes that stand apart from their musical treatment — the gorgeous “Stars,” for instance, could easily be covered in a variety of ways as a new standard — others find their way out with the aid of more indulgent arrangement, including some inspired use of accordion. This approach makes for incredibly memorable musical moments, from the show stopping, choir-backed refrain of “Safe to Say” to the out-of-left-field turn that is “Poster Child,” which barely gets 30 seconds in before going full Cab Calloway call-and-response. From the Ground Up this is not.

Like the messaging in its opening track, The Liar admits to convention, and perhaps that is one interpretation of the title. Since its announcement, writers have struggled to make sense of its meaning, suggesting that Fullbright calling himself a liar could be some new commentary on the truthfulness of his stories. However, his songs have always mused the consequence of dishonesty. It isn’t a new concept for him. Rather, it could be that his great rise to relevance in the 2010s found him trying to fill shoes for which he didn’t ask. It could be that his strict adherence to songwriting rules and concise expression led him to sacrifice his instincts.

One aspect of The Liar that, for all of its praises in recent weeks, has not been a point of conversation is that the album is decidedly not compressed. Audio compression is almost universally used in every contemporary music style of the modern industry in the mastering process to maximize everything to the listener’s ear. It is a trend to which the public has grown accustomed. Where waveforms of most music appear as a mostly uninterrupted wall of sound, Fullbright’s final cuts are full of peaks and valleys.

This is a conscientious choice. It implies that John Fullbright isn’t so concerned with industry expectations and is content with his Grammy nomination resting in the attic instead of staring at him from the mantle. The Liar is, for all of its undeniable entertainment value and down-to-earth good humor, a subversion. With the help of some new friends, it digs deep within Fullbright’s artistic methodology to rediscover what he has always been — independent.

Visit johnfullbrightmusic.com

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