Christopher Paul Stelling’s Forgiving It All begins with Stelling’s voice and finger-picked guitar, and the line, “When I was just a little child / It all seemed crystal clear / when I blindly trusted all of it / Before I learned to fear.” It’s a stark enough lyric, until you learn Stelling recorded the song, “Die to Know,” as well as the entire album, in his grandmother’s house after she died. As haunting as the album’s backstory is, and as intense as the lyrics can be, Stelling has crafted an expansive album that manages to capture different moods.
The music’s vastness is impressive because the entire album is Stelling’s voice and guitar. His guitar work, which encompasses folk and blues, makes the songs sound full due to its placement in the mix, up-front enough that you can hear his thumb creating bass lines and his finger strikes serving as percussion. There’s a Lindsey Buckingham-esque quality to his playing, but with more of a willingness to let the guitar speak for itself, unadorned and unenhanced. Singing and guitar, even on an album, can easily become repetitive, like a long night in a coffee house. Luckily for the listener, Stelling avoids that with exciting guitar and varied vocal deliveries.
On “Cutting Loose,” Stelling uses fast guitar lines and falsetto to create a sense of drama. “WWYLLYD” has a folky Bob Dylan-esque simplicity, but a deadpan delivery that offsets a depressingly true refrain of, “Remember everyone is suffering / Not just you.” “For Your Drive” is a lively instrumental that Stelling drenches in melody, a true song and not someone jamming out. And “Driving the Hearse” feels like a country blues. But it also doesn’t, because while so many of these sounds are anchored to genres from the American South, Stelling hails from Florida, a state more geographically south than the South, but one considered by many not to be the South. Stelling’s songs are southern with a lowercase S.
Perhaps it’s an accurate way to think about the Sunshine State, because Stelling’s voice is emotive and rootsy, but not particularly country. He’s connected to America’s past with a voice that’s not tied to a particular place, the same way the British Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens built his music on American influences without sounding particularly American.
Stelling is a talented singer-songwriter, but the impressive thing about Forgiving It All is how well he holds our attention with so little. His mastery of blues and folk guitar allows him to lay down a band’s worth of sound with six strings and ten fingers. But at the same time, the playing never feels overly busy or in-your-face. Instead, he’s thoughtfully supporting his songs. While the album is built upon the serious vibe of a grandson recording in his beloved and departed grandmother’s house, Stelling finds a way to create a variety of other emotions.