Stephen Winston – Unresolved
Stephen Winston’s Unresolved, his fifth album, continues in the personal tradition of songwriting he’s established with previous releases and deepens the material in an assortment of ways. Melody is the underlying strength behind every musical decision Winston makes and the new studio album finds him making the best decisions of his career – they manifest themselves in a variety of contexts from pop balladry through Americana infused material. The crowning touch for Winston’s latest album is, of course, the exceptional songwriting he brings to bear and the unique balance struck between the personal and universal – Winston makes no bones that these songs are ripped from the pages of his own autobiography, but his writing communicates in such a way that any listener can relate to its emotional weather. This nine song collection is a new peak for a songwriter who exponentially improves with each new release.
The elegiac piano opening “Sun on the Boats” has a plaintive sound Winston’s voice complements quite nicely and the abundance of lyrical imagery embedded into the song makes it all the more effective. Much of his vocal conforms to the arrangement’s melody and he adds some discreet musical touches along the way that deepen the song’s emotional impact. The album’s second track “Maidens” has a full band arrangement and a decidedly retro sound, but another immensely soulful vocal from Winston is key to the song’s success. He brings in some unobtrusive backing vocals and the track’s drumming gives it a sense of urgency lacking in the album’s opener.
The title song moves away from the quasi-orchestrated quality of the album’s first two tracks in favor of a much stronger folky vibe. The marriage of acoustic guitar, Winston’s voice, and more eloquent piano drives the track musically, but there’s some understated percussion that helps set a dramatic tone for the cut. “Maybe It’s For James”, one of the best on Unresolved, is another song built around piano, but there’s no sense of repetition and the instrumental choices Winston makes along the way gives it a distinct flavor compared to earlier and later tracks. There’s definitely a strongly orchestrated quality emerging from the song and the vocal melody gives Winston something substantial to sink his teeth into. The strings, however, give “Maybe It’s for James” a level of elegance other tracks never reach.
Shorter than many of the album’s other tunes, “For What Purpose” asks weighty questions and provides no real answers. Answers aren’t the point. Winston treats his recordings as a voyage of self discovery and, often times, merely knowing what questions to ask is far more important than even the faintest promise of answers. As someone who became a father twice over, lost one parent, lost the only grandparent I ever knew, reconnected with my birth mother, and married in the space of five years, I appreciate the probing nature of Winston’s songs and his refusal to pander for easy answers. Our lives are always brimming with the unresolved – if we are truly living. The album’s finale “The Last Night” continues following much of the same template we’ve heard with the preceding tunes. Winston foregoes piano in favor of a track centered on his voice and acoustic guitar, but there are artful swaths of strings incorporated into the arrangement as well. This is a song of leave taking, in more ways than one – it’s a valedictory salute to the cost incurred for writing and recording this album and memorably concludes Unresolved.
“Maybe It’s For James” video: https://youtu.be/sOePuEjHPOg