Premiere: TJ Foster, “First Person, Volume One”

TJ Foster / First Person, Volume One / April 2018
RIYL: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, City and Colour, Damien Rice

There is a word I’ve been trying to coin lately. It doesn’t have a new definition, but I find it more mellifluous. That word is “earnesty.” I mean that as a noun and not an adjective. Why on earth am I starting the first album review I’ve ever written with this self-important declaration of language? That word is not only the foundation upon which my dear old friend TJ Foster has built his album First Person, Part One, it’s the quality I’ve been missing most from music these days.

TJ warned me his solo work was “sad bastard music,” but what he forgot in that moment is that sad bastard is a piece of everyone’s puzzle and sometimes that piece needs to be taken out, the edges examined, leaving behind a small hole we notice when it’s not in place. So when the first chorus on the opening track “I Don’t Know” sings “Should I talk to somebody or stay in my head? Find a distraction or just go to bed? I don’t know, I don’t know,” I felt my puzzled-together self yearn to touch that sad bastard piece. Jaded is an earnest human emotion. Confused is an earnest human emotion. Lost is an earnest human emotion.

The LP goes on to rise and drop through expertly crafted folk-pop arrangements. Moments of twinkling electric guitar, shimmering piano, and a steadfast rhythm section create an atmosphere that is at once inviting and heart-tugging.  Foster produced, recorded, and mixed the record himself. As a home producer, I admire the naturalistic approach and the layers of nuance. It sounds clean, but real. It has a glued-together mix that makes it hard for even the sharpest of trained ears to pick apart choices and overdubs. TJ has accomplished a very difficult balance of elements. It just sounds like songs.

The lyrics flow out via TJ’s warm, butterscotch voice; lines like “should I just be alone” on the song “57” seep with rich, effortless emotion. Many moments evoke one of my favorite albums of all time: Springsteen’s 1982 bedroom folk masterpiece Nebraska. Much like that record, this one tells its idly bleak stories like slices of Americana. Stories that sound like they’re unweaving for specific people, but that you, too, are somehow one of these people.

Perhaps my favorite cut on the album is the somber but sultry “Brokenfine,” which I am not ashamed to say has made me shed a tear or 20. Foster settles into the foundation of his vocal range to a place that feels like it’s inviting you to rest in a cabin and gaze out a window at the scenery while allowing yourself a good hearty sulk. Similarly cathartic is the closer “Unheavenly Father” which urges into a long crescendo and a rewarding musical climax that highlights TJ’s 1990s emo influences I know are there.  

The album isn’t all melancholy. Tracks like “An Ode To My Twenties” reflect on a stage of life with both yearning and fondness, while wordlessly emanating a sense of cautious hope for the future. Another standout track, “The Basement,” is a mid-tempo anthem for former garage band kids. Hitting the bullseye with lines like “Played the big stage once or twice, had some loyal fans in my youth. Now I’m lucky if a couple dozen people come out to hear what I do.” The song doesn’t feel bitter or morose to me. There is a wry self-awareness about it that I find intensely relatable and it makes me smile more than it makes me grimace.

First Person, Volume One is a confessional, open, soul-baring experience. Not just the deep and philosophical parts of the soul, either. It bares the grey parts, the yellow parts, the parts that creak, the parts that dully shine, the parts that reflect a change in something intrinsically familiar. The LP, however, is far from an emotional rollercoaster.  I’d compare it more to a long talk with an old friend. It is bright and it is aching. It means what it says. It is rooted and grown in earnesty.

–Frank McGinnis

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