Although he’s released several records over the dozen years or so, up until now Sean McConnell has for the most part avoided singing about his own life in favor of artfully observing the lives and trials of others. But with this, his debut for Rounder Records, he flips that script in a powerful, personal way. And with the admission of how closely related these songs are to his own experiences and the nakedly autobiographical nature of the record as a whole, it’s almost sensible to take it in as a concept record — the portrait of an artist as an evolving man.
In “Holy Days,” a charged-up roots-rocker that invokes both Crazy Horse and the Heartbreakers, McConnell gives vibrancy to the memory of a time in his life when love bloomed. Singing about young(er) love isn’t original of course, but through McConnell’s custom-designed rearview mirror, a saccharine story becomes heart-warning and relatable. When he sings “You held up your hands in the shape of a camera/took a snapshot so you’ll always remember,” he’s helping us go back to our own happy places as much as he’s inviting us into his.
Revisiting the past isn’t always sugar-sweet, though. In “Ghost Town,” a dash of bitterness is capably mixed in when a return to a childhood home becomes a humbling lesson in the constant forward motion of real life. Again, a heartland rock backdrop propels the song into a fist-pumping realm not typically populated by folky crooners. But McConnell can be the quiet acoustic singer with the best of them, too, as evidenced in the stark, gorgeous “Beautiful Rose.” Like a five-star chef with only a handful of basic ingredients, McConnell wields the profound beauty of simplicity with grace and precision when he sings, “I’ll take the thorns for this beautiful rose.”
If McConnell had actually decided to offer this album as a strictly autobiographical concept project, it’s conceivable that “Queen of Saint Mary’s Choir” would’ve been the opening track. As prominent acoustic strums thump along, he sings, “I was born in Massachusetts / I was forged out of the fire / between the guitar kid from Hudson and the Queen of Saint Mary’s Choir.” As the tune sweeps into the successful roots-rock vibe much of the record carries, McConnell’s origin story engages and soars along impeccably.
This bold personal mission statement is a cohesive, moving album from start to finish. And thanks to the intimate nature of the songs, there likely won’t be a more perfectly titled record all year long than Sean McConnell. — KELLY DEARMORE