Album Review: Evan Bartels – The Devil, God and Me (Winner NMF 69)

Evan Bartels doesn’t sound like any singer I’ve ever heard. Ever. His voice sounds old and young at the same time. He sounds like he’s a hard drinker and a gentle soul. He is a contradiction and his writing cuts through the air like a knife. He’s worth every second of this album straight into your ears. This is an incredible introduction to a talented, rising artist.

Bartels was one of those “no doubt” approvals when we first heard his music. His song “Tattoo” made my top songs last year, so of course the album itself is pretty good. That said, Bartels has a sound that is equal parts John Fullbright and Noah Gundersen. See why we like him?

The opening track is about a fire burning through his prison walls. It’s called “Widow” and we can’t even begin to conjecture what actually happened in his life to generate this song, but it feels absolutely real and raw. There’s something about his voice that makes you feel like he’s seen some things… like he should be drinking a stiff drink between tracks while he sings these hard stories.

Right from the title of the album you can tell there will be some spiritual content to the songs. “Demons” gets right to that with some incredible guitar work leading to more thoughtful lyrical content. As much a lament as a song, it’s a powerfully moving personal story. Here Bartels shows us some scars while he describes his resilience. The story of falling for a “dancing girl” feels more true than metaphor, but the comments about fire completes the image with brilliance. This is fantastic songwriting.

“Two at a Time” has a chilled Americana vibe to it. The opening line is about drinking with friends, but not really from a celebratory place. It’s more about drinking as a coping mechanism. It’s another song that gives the connotation that Bartels has lived a Johnny Cash-like live, despite his seeming young age. It’s followed by “The Way It Breaks,” a thoughtful song about hatred and enduring the difficults of life. “Spend your whole life workin for someone else’s sake” is one of those lines that makes you just sit back and feel… and it’s not always a good feeling. This is another stunning song.

“Wish They Would” is a piano track that puts me in mind of John Fullbright quite a lot. Bartels comes at this one with something akin to a gospel flavor. There’s a charming sense of survival to his story, about getting through life chasing a high or a numb. It’s really a captivating Americana track. The title track “The Devil, God and Me” has… well, what we might call interesting word order. One gets the sense throughout the album that Bartels isn’t just singing about this stuff to sell records. In fact, it sounds like he just wants to sing the songs… and someone happened to record it for the rest of it. Honestly, this track might be the most like Jason Isbell of anything I heard in 2017. Bartels could be on that Grammy-winning trajectory too if he gets in the right places with these incredible songs.

I won’t write much about “Tattoo” here because I’ve covered it a few times on this site. Suffice it to say this is one of the most emotional songs I heard all year and definitely the star of this album. I don’t understand why it’s not playing on alt country stations all over the country. This should be on every Isbell-based Americana and country station in the world. One thing you’ll notice listening to this song in context with the album rather than as a single, though, is the fire metaphor that comes up several times. Also, the sense of confession and redemption is common in nearly all of the songs. When you realize that “Tattoo” is not a one-off, but part of a whole conception of the world, that’s when Bartels moves from an ordinary songwriter to that next level of conceptualizing something spectacular.

“Hallelujah Amen” brings out the piano again for another powerful ballad. The heavy low notes really carry the sound well. Despite his heavy lyrics and concern, this song really feels like an honest prayer to go to heaven in the afterlife. It is about the most sincere gospel song I’ve heard in years. The final track “Run Like the Devil” is the sort of raw, earthly response to the prayerful lament of the previous track. Like yeah, we all hope for heaven. But we have to live on this broken earth, so let’s run and do our best with what we have. It’s wayyyy more theological than you’d ever expect from an album like this.

All told Bartels is an incredible songwriter. It’s my hope that more than our usual readers see this review and give him a sincere listen. This is the kind of album that deserves so much more attention than it seems to be getting. I can’t wait to hear this talented artist sing his thoughtful tracks in person. I bet he can rock a stage like Fullbright, Isbell, and Gundersen. He sure can write like them.

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