I will be forever connected to songwriter Justin Hulsey. As a young music writer, his 2015 Morning Bloom album was one of the first I seriously reviewed. It was a solid and artful expression from an thoughtfully earnest songwriter. Since then, Hulsey has been somewhat of a musical troubadour, taking creative risks many artists are too timid to attempt. It’s understandable. The buzz around his first few releases could have led him to play it safe. Now in 2021, we find an artist who is continuing his creative journey with a robust collection of provoking tracks.
A Play at Voices is a intriguing blend of tracks dipping into a more mature rock field similar to the likes of Elbow, while sharing stream of consciousness lyricism of The National. On “Castle in the Air”, Hulsey provides a natural progression from his earlier work. His vocal delivery has always been a bit more mature and interesting, but it might be the guitar tone on this one that gets us. It is the perfect soundtrack for a love affair gone wrong. “Castle in the Air” might be the best work the songwriter has produced. It certainly seems to be the most vulnerable.
“Proof” continues with the fuzzed guitars. While not typically an artist who crafts vocal hooks, this one could easily be placed on any modern rock station and find a large following. Dipping into grunge, it nods to those who came before, while still owning a more present sense of the genre. The guitar solo is near combustible.
“Suddenly Sunshine” reminded us of a David Ramirez style track. Like Ramirez, Hulsey brings the melancholy and pensive relational exploration. The bass on this one and overall production is top notch and is key to appreciating what Ulsey does so well on this album. It is a quintessential lovelorn track which could easily connect with many.
“Are You Ok to Drive” is a provocative ballad laced with haunting piano. The track is sonically textured tightly, and could succeed as a mere instrumental track. This one sounds like Scott Weiland if he was still alive crafting music for ’21. Like most of this album, it benefits the listener to give it a few spins. Some of his lyricism is subtle and we found ourselves truly appreciating the art of the album, the more we listened.
“At the Bound’ry” highlights experiences at a Nashville dive bar. This is the closest the album has to a danceable groove, before exploding into almost rock opera style orchestration. The song builds and builds and highlights a truly original artist.
Overall, A Play at Voices is an earnest piece of sincere art – a creative statement that demands a listen. This is an album which undoubtedly holds this time of history we find ourselves in, and breathes a sort of confident response. Like Hulsey, we have all changed in the past 18 months, and hopefully, also like Hulsey, we find ourselves sincere, honest, and at our very best.