The tradition of sad men singing beautifully about their pain runs deep through the folk genre as well as popular music as a whole. But there’s something especially tender about the music of artists like Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens and Jason Molina, all self-deprecating masters of the English language who, through their own perpetual battles with depression and heartbreak and life in general, each taught (or are still teaching) us something new about the preciousness of the human condition.
Joining that lineage of great singer/songwriters is L.A.-based musician Christian Lee Hutson, who recently released his new album Beginners after a year or so of hype building. Hutson worked closely with Phoebe Bridgers, who produced the record, and he also co-wrote a song on Bridgers’ and Oberst’s Better Oblivion Community Center album from last year, plus opened/played guitar for them on that tour. Hutson sounds so much like Smith you have to wonder if it’s cosplay—like Smith, his voice is airy and strained, yet so soft, and his lyrics possess a similar noir, but funny mood—but he also sings like Bridgers. They share a dark sense of humor that leads them to drop lines like “The doctor put her hands over my liver / And she told me my resentment’s getting smaller” (from Bridgers’ recent single “Garden Song”) and “You idiots in your leather jackets and glasses / You know I can still kick all your asses” (from Hutson’s “Get The Old Band Back Together,” inspired by a former classmate and drummer who was ousted from his band after trying to pursue a side hustle in building inspection).
While the similarities to both his contemporaries and those who came before him are impossible to ignore, there are few musicians who could pull off singing about an aspiring building inspector and make it so equally funny and sweet—but Hutson possesses a rare balance of critical wit and soul. On album standout “Lose this Number,” he slips in anecdotal blips (“Bobby helped me track you down / ‘cause I just saw your name in the paper / You said, ’Of course that reminded you of me / Don’t you know that’s how a name works?’”) alongside vague, but vivid, imagery that will spark all one’s senses at once (“Where the whole time I’ve just been asleep here / Twenty years younger / Smell of sugar and seaweed / Indian summer.”) Maybe this song’s meaning is intentionally clouded in humor and metaphor with just the right amount of ambiguity, so that anyone could apply this situation to their own life: running into an old acquaintance while scouring their small hometown.
It’s his soulful side that shines through on “Keep You Down,” an older single, which grieves a slow-dying relationship. “Our love’s already begun to brown / And unless I can convince you / No one could want you now / You’re gonna see how easy it is to fool around / So I have to keep you down,” he sings, emphasizing the last line with a surprising roar. He’s soft-spoken when he needs to be, but Hutson is perfectly capable of serving up a mock emo scream à la Conor Oberst at times. And speaking of which, Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott performed strings and trumpet for this album, which give songs like “Unforgivable” and “Single For The Summer” a special beauty, albeit a familiar one.
Hutson tells his own Booksmart-esque coming-of-age tale on the buzzy 2019 single “Northsiders.” Like any good high school movie, the song addresses various stages of innocence being shattered: “We were so pretentious then / Didn’t trust the government / Said that we were communists / And thought that we invented it,” Hutson sings, ironically channelling the hell out of Timothée Chalamet’s Lady Bird character and 18-year-old lefties everywhere. “Morrissey apologists / Amateur psychologists / Serial monogamists / We went to different colleges.” As this album’s title suggests, this song is, more than anything, about growing up—trying drugs, working a dead-in job in a smoothie shop and teenage flames dying out. It’s all part of the ride.
On “Seven Lakes,” Hutson layers his vocals in a manner similar to that of Sufjan Stevens, dropping little nuggets of poetry here and there while Walcott’s strings carry the whole operation. From one moment to the next, you’ll find yourself hearing iterations of Oberst, Stevens and Smith, almost to the point that “Seven Lakes” sounds like it would’ve fit in on any one of their albums. This album’s biggest flaw is its tendency to impersonate rather than interpret.
But, as Hutson writes in the album’s liner notes, this is just the beginning, and it’s a first chapter that will surely leave listeners eager to hear what he comes up with next. He has a long way to go before officially joining the ranks of the indie-folk forefathers, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of: “I went with Beginners as the title because that’s where I feel like I am in my life—like, I’m still just learning and trying to figure out how to navigate the world.” Well, aren’t we all?
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.