Paul Cauthen had to learn some pretty brutal lessons in the making of his latest record Room 41, but damn if it didn’t result in what sounds like a helluva time. Cauthen has always flirted with a groovy sound, but Room 41 finds him more earnestly diving into R&B, soul and funk, even a little disco and pop. Hearing him stretch to reach all the corners of his sonic potential is a thrill ride, even when it gets a little murky and dark. Cauthen didn’t need to invent characters who hit rock bottom to write the songs on Room 41. He lived it in a nearly two-year stint at the Belmont Hotel in Dallas, drinking and drugging himself to death, almost.
Known for an otherworldly bellow that seems to come from so deep inside him its power is almost mystical, Cauthen really leans in to his nickname “Big Velvet.” He even named a song after it. An autobiography of sorts, the song “Big Velvet” is a self-aware and self-deprecating reflection of all his worst habits. Each verse begins with a phrase — “Heartless,” “Trouble,” “Scandalous,” “Shameful,” “Train wreck” — and spirals from there. “Come meet Big Velvet,” he beckons devilishly at the end, as if to say, this is the real me. That reckless daredevil side of Cauthen also comes through in album standouts like the sauntering “Cocaine Country Dancing,” the slick, driving “Holy Ghost Fire,” and the slinky, smooth “Freak.”
Room 41 isn’t all about the swaggering come-up. In fact, some of its best songs deal with the devastation of the come-down. “Prayed for Rain” is an epic tale of survival that is as hopeful as it is beautifully melodic. “Slow Down,” “Give ‘Em Peace,” and “Lay Me Down” find Cauthen wading in those familiar gospel-tinged waters — in many way, his sweet spot. Room 41, in all its unflattering, self-destructive, existential crisis glory, is Cauthen’s masterpiece. It might feel wrong to say all the pain was all worth it, but listening to these songs, it feels so right.