On Nothing For Me, Please, Dean Johnson Makes His Awaited Debut and Steals the Show
The Seattle folk singer’s first album shines through lush instrumentation, love songs and wondrous cowboy fantasiesPhoto by Jason Neuerburg Music Reviews Dean Johnson
I owe an endless amount of gratitude to the YouTube channel Western AF for all it has given me since the pandemic began three years ago. From Sierra Ferrell to Nick Shoulders to Charley Crockett, the online series has showcased some of the greatest singer/songwriters in the world, many of whom you’ve probably never heard of. I know I hadn’t known of them, nor had I any inkling that such an ecosystem existed. My own naivety be damned, Ferrell has found infinite fame on TikTok with her viral tune “In Dreams” and Shoulders’ yodeling prowess has opened the eyes of countless folks to the musical beauty of the Ozarks. In turn, there are countless more gems that similarly etch themselves in the hearts of whoever discovers them. At millions of views and counting, the underground world of raw, vulnerable and authentic country and folk music isn’t so underground anymore.
Likewise, Seattle-based balladeer Dean Johnson came into my orbit in 2022, when his Western AF performance of “True Love” tumbled into my feed. To see it nestled into the tracklist of his debut LP Nothing For Me, Please a year later conjured up something special within me. Unlike some of his younger Western AF peers, Johnson hails from a different generation. A staple in the local singer/songwriter scene, he parades around the alleyways of the Emerald City and the legendary Al’s Tavern singing his own tunes, though he is much better known as a member of a band called the Sons of Rainier. It’s taken nearly two decades for Johnson’s first solo album to reach the rest of us, and its release couldn’t be more bittersweet.
With a gritty guise like Sam Elliott and a heavenly voice like Vince Gill, Johnson’s approach to performance is singular. On Nothing For Me, Please, his storytelling is front-and-center, splayed atop troubadour instrumentals that wouldn’t be too out-of-place in Greenwich Village, the Midwestern prairies or a coming-of-age film set in 1974. Across its 29-minute runtime, Nothing For Me, Please is alive and beautiful in its back-to-basics approach to the singer/songwriter genre that so often gets lost in contemporary spaces. It’s a record about the shifting phases of love, whether it be for a person, a place or the unknown, and was recorded in 2018 at the legendary Mashed Potato Records in New Orleans under the tutelage of Duff Thompson, Sam Gelband, Charlie Meyer and Sam Doores.
Each song tells a complete tale, and Nothing For Me, Please is without filler. At a concise nine tracks, the album rings in like a portrait of Johnson’s life thus far, which makes sense, given that the oldest entry in the tracklist was written as long ago as 2004. Lead single “True Love” is a timeless ode to joyous love now lost. “If true love has no possessions / It has an open hand / I tried to hold you in my fist / Ever since the first time that we kissed,” Johnson sings in the sweetest tenor vocal imaginable atop a busking guitar arpeggio. “Acting School” is a humorous turn that finds him plotting a facade to convince his peers that he’s in a good headspace after a breakup. “Ya hardly ever cross my mind / ‘Cross my mind I’m doin’ fine / Or let the tears fall down like rain / My heart out on my sleeve / Go around sayin’ your name / Let everybody see / It’s killin’ me, can’t you see?” Johnson proclaims.
Standout track “Shouldn’t Say Mine” is a pure acoustic bliss with soft rock percussion that perfectly compliments Johnson’s voice. The song could be in communion with anything from Sweet Baby James-era James Taylor or anything Jim Croce put out in the Nixon years. As a high-pitched piano rings out, Johnson laments: “I held you too tight, my weakness it showed / I was in your way trying to get close / You’re after my world, a rolling stone / Alright, alright, I’ll leave you alone.” As the melody of “Possession” suggests, he has forged a world draped in sunshine and careening “oos”; the album-equivalent of a good night spent in the company of endless beloveds. It’s here that the thesis of Nothing For Me, Please arises: “I am bound, wrapped up in my past / And back here it’s certain no love will ever last,” Johnson sings.
The centerpiece of the whole project is actually its opening track, “Faraway Skies.” Through an arrangement of a supple acoustic guitar, gorgeous lap steel and whisking drums, Johnson dares to believe that, despite hailing from the rainy Pacific Northwest, he, too, can be a Western rancher he grew up loving. Amid the recent reinvigoration of cowboy culture, Johnson’s portrait of his own dreams feels especially earned and possible. His vocals weathered and his harmonies spun into an instrument on their own, Johnson sings: “Cattle calls and canyon walls, the jangle of spurs / At the light of dawn, put the saddle on, start movin’ the heard / The distant horizons are a glorious sight / And there’s gettin’ lost in the Milky Way at night.” In a post-Be the Cowboy world, having these rambling tunes has never been so euphoric.
Nothing For Me, Please’s strongest moment of narrative comes on “Your Shadow,” as Johnson’s wayfaring voice shines while telling a tender tale of longing. “Darlin’, I can hear it ring / Your laughter and the way that you sing / Sweet melody, driftin’ over me / It gets me to wondering when / You might send a spark that lights up the dark,” he sings. What can best describe Nothing For Me, Please is one unavoidable truth: It’s been a long, long while since a collection of such pleasant and emotional songs has come to us in such a meaningful way. Why it took so long for Johnson to escape the dive bars and DIY spaces of Seattle and get these songs on tape is no longer a question we need an answer to. He has arrived, and it was more than worth the wait.
As the album chugs along to its conclusion, the title track kicks off with a “Harvest Moon”-style arrangement and cascades into Johnson singing from the perspective of a vampire cursed to live forever. “Momma, we’re forever young / We’re living in our kingdom come / But now it’s been a thousand years or less / And I’m feelin’ like I’m pretty well done / Could someone pull the plug, please? / Eternity, I guess it’s not for me,” he sings. While much of Nothing For Me, Please woes and hollers about the mundane, finite slope of love and heartache, the album finishes on a brilliant moment of self-reflection told through mythical imagery. And Johnson, ever the storyteller, perfectly blurs the line of what parts apply to himself and what parts don’t.
Johnson is no longer Seattle’s best-kept secret. Nothing For Me, Please is sure to gain him a few more fans, and for good reason: I’ll be returning to the enchantments of this album for many days to come, and I hope you will, too. It’s unlikely that it’ll take another 20 years for him to put out a full LP of songs. And thank goodness for that, because Nothing For Me, Please is such a rich document of beautiful and long-gone moments in one bard’s time on Earth so far. Based on the roads his songs travel, it’s clear that Johnson has lived a lot of life and met quite a number of folks he’s loved. And, in the days since making Nothing For Me, Please in 2018, I’m sure he’s fallen in love with many, many more. If this album is any evidence of how he honors and continues to care for the people in his life, then I can’t wait to meet those who enter his orbit next.
Matt Mitchell is Paste’s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.