BY JOHN SCHACHT
Kevin Morby calls Justin Sullivan a songwriter’s “secret weapon,” a drummer with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what else a song needs. Well, the secret’s out for good now with Night Shop’s full-length debut, and once these 11 songs get into your bloodstream, you’ll be justified asking, “Hang on—did Justin Sullivan just out-Kevin Morby Kevin Morby?”
Some background: Sullivan’s 20 years in the drummer’s chair included recent road and studio stints with Morby, as well as his pre-solo outfit, the Babies. In the Break is out on Morby’s new label, Mare, and engineered by Jarvis Taveniere of Woods and Woodsist label fame; Taveniere adds guitar fills and bass throughout. These are families as much as bands, in other words, connections that for Sullivan are a continuation of playing house shows and warehouse gigs with half-a-dozen DIY punk acts over the years. (It’s a thread that also winds through Sullivan’s current fuzz punk outfit Flat Worms, which features Thee Oh Sees’ Tim Hellman and Will Ivy, who also contributes guitar to In the Break.)
Whatever his pedigree, Sullivan’s obviously been taking great notes. In the Break’s 11 tracks build first on the promise of his self-titled 2017 EP, combining welcome-to-the-big city Dylan (“The One I Love”) with sunny folk pop (“Road to Carolina”) and “Pale Blues Eyes”-style VU folk balladry (“If You Remember”). Those touchstones will be familiar to fans of Morby (pre-L.A., especially), whose urban folk rock sounded like mid-tempo strolls through the boroughs with the ghosts of Lou Reed and 60s’ Dylan in tow.
But on In the Break, Sullivan emerges much his own man. The “break” of the title refers to a rare respite from touring, during which Sullivan concentrated on the writings he’d been collecting like string along the way. Time well spent, it seems, as he’s crafted a beautiful nocturnal set of songs, warm with the embrace of his musical families and the family of man, too. Convenience store clerks and late night diners inhabit these songs, a demimonde of loud neighborhoods, weathered watering holes and post-gig parking lots—the kind of “margins,” as Sullivan puts it in the glowing title lament, where absent lovers and old flames mingle freely in memories.
Sullivan’s narratives are also notable for their wit and depth, a blend that maturity—with its gut-punches and reconciliations—affords; he can pen a touching ode or a piquant blow-off with equal aplomb, sometimes in the same couplet. “Well, you talk about love like you’re headed into battle,” he sings on the bouncing-ball opener “The One I Love,” which doubles as an ode to DIY music-making, “Oh little baby, don’t forget your rattle.”
Sullivan examines those grey areas of love with such nuance you might not even be able to pin down whether the one drawing his affection is even real or not. On the Lennon-esque duet “Here With Me Now,” performed with Hand Habits’ (and ex-Babies bassist) Meg Duffy and glittering with guitar tremolo from Ivy, Sullivan flashes back to the lovers’ sacrifice at the end of Casablanca, but notes that even if “Ilsa’s getting on the plane and Rick’s making friends, that’s not how this ends.” Instead, he sees “what the poets and singers had found” in unrequited love or the regrettable missed opportunity: Inspiration. He may not fully understand how it ties people together, but they’re bonded nevertheless: “And I do not know how that you’re here with me now,” goes the song’s chorus.
Lots of songwriters talk about being a mere conduit for some Jungian collective consciousness or universal creative voice, but few describe the phenomenon as well as Sullivan does. On the title track, over shimmering guitar glissandos and thick floor-tom beats, he pictures everyone he’s ever met safely tucked in bed, at peace. But he’s on the move in those late-night margins—”where everything is motion and I’m not here” —where he hears a voice that commands, ” ‘follow me,’/As if I had a choice.” When label-mate Anna St. Louis joins him in the plangent outro, singing “In the break—forever,” it’s truly bittersweet.
Sullivan wisely follows the lament with a pair of jaunty numbers—sequencing is another In the Break attribute—that explore essentially the same topic from different angles. On the sparsely arranged but up-tempo “You Are the Beatles,” the Liverpudlians, Billy Holliday and “John and Exene” share billing with his favorite leather jacket and “electricity coming to the country, letting us know that we could be free.” On the LP’s one overt rocker, “I Was Alone,” a younger Sullivan—”born into the trash of the backwoods” of his hometown—wanders the nicer neighborhoods, wondering if “there was something wrong with them, or something wrong with me.” But with time comes awareness, as the outsider embraces who he is and what he needs—”Just flip the tape over on my tape player, I was alone.”
Throughout, Sullivan seamlessly blends the sacred with the profane. On the propulsively catchy “My Love,” he tells his long-time partner she “looks like a Grecian Urn, set in Grecian diner light.” The ill-fated Keats seems a patron saint of sorts for Sullivan—it’s one of two overt allusions on the LP—but an approachable one that any touring musician searching for late-night grub would also identify with.
This embrace of the creative and quotidian isn’t all DIY kumbaya and Grecian urn odes, however. Other star-crossed artists—1920s “it girl” Clara Bow, Montgomery Clift and Marc Bolan among them—drift through the LP like ghostly celebrity stand-ins for the rest of us. On the shuffling, reverb-laden “The Ship Has Sailed,” Sullivan recalls a baker “who chased the vine until the vine came around,” and bemoans that no one “could report his dreams.” And on the tropically tinged “On the Island,” he explores the dark side of desire and loneliness in a junkie relationship, as the aging partners try to justify the life decisions that led them there. Sullivan concedes in the song’s chorus that “even if I wanted to, I could not explain to you a thing like that.” Yet in the very act of description, he grants them grace and dignity.
And that’s the lasting takeaway from In the Break; it’s the search for meaning that provides meaning. “Where Does Everyone Go?”, ostensibly about musicians lost to obscurity, drugs or both, ends the LP in a joyous tempo rush that recounts—both through the story and in current time—that age-old need to howl back in unison at the void. “So come on now, let’s start a band/The only thing that I believe in,” Sullivan sings as the pace accelerates and the urgency snowballs. “We’ll go on tour and we’ll sell our cassettes/We’ll eat out of the garbage like some good looking rats/And the kids are here and they’re sad and they’re weird, hallelujah.”
Rarely is this sentiment so simultaneously approachable and transcendent as it is on In the Break, an album that reminds us—without a hint of oratory or self-aggrandizement—what music does for us. And for that reason alone there’s only one appropriate response: Hallelujah, indeed.
DOWNLOAD: “Where Does Everyone Go?,” “My Love,” “On the Island,” “I Was Alone” “The Ship Has Sailed,” “The One I Love”