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Review: Eli Paperboy Reed, 'My Way Home'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

<em>My Way Home</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
My Way Home

In some ways, Eli Paperboy Reed's story is nothing new. It recalls decades' worth of biographies of American blues, country and rock 'n' roll singers. Traipsed around the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta in his youth? Check. Hip nickname inspired by personal appearance (in Reed's case, a newsboy hat he wore while performing in said establishments)? Check. Came up singing gospel music in church? Yep, check.

Similarly, Reed's new album represents a well-told tale: the classic story of a major-label record deal gone sour, only to occasion greater artistic freedom. His last record, the shiny pop-soul effort Nights Like This, was his first and last for Warner Brothers; he's said the label failed to promote it as promised, then dropped him. In this version of a stock narrative, My Way Home could easily take on the overused trappings of liberation and creative rebirth.

But Reed has a knack for imbuing narrative tropes with new meaning, transforming them into stories that couldn't be anyone else's. His own biography departs at many turns from convention; not every young man born into a Boston-area Jewish family gets a gospel schooling from a former Chess Records hitmaker (Mitty Collier) at her South Side Chicago congregation. For its part, My Way Home defies clichés by offering a fresh, inspired statement of purpose that matters, palpably, to its author. We're in a moment when the ever-present, if submerged, influence of gospel is rising to the surface of the pop ocean — Chance The Rapper recently became the first artist to reach the Billboard 200 chart through streaming alone with what is fundamentally a gospel album, and artists from Kanye West to James Blake also draw prominently on the sounds of the church. Reed adds to that conversation by returning to the music he'd learned under Collier's wing, and now by teaching with the Harlem youth mentorship program Gospel For Teens. My Way Home makes evident Reed's studied love of, and investment in, gospel-quartet music.

To be sure, a traditional vocal quartet — a la The Dixie Hummingbirds or The Soul Stirrers, two of Reed's cited influences — this is not. Those sorts of harmonies pop up throughout the album, running under Reed's own explosive vocals, but the instrumentation is that of an R&B combo (organ, bass, drums, Reed's guitar) and the ensemble sound is loose and garage-y, tracked live to tape in the Brooklyn studio of Guards' Loren Humphrey. And, with the exception of the snappy folk-gospel standard "Cut Ya Down" (more commonly known as "Run On" or "God's Gonna Cut You Down," which Reed learned singing with the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers of Roxbury, Mass.), each of the album's 11 songs is an original. Songs like "Your Sins Will Find You Out," "Eyes On You" and "I'd Rather Be Alone" find Reed exploring apparently Protestant notions of sin, judgment and individual accountability, while "What Have We Done" is an earnest, largely secular invocation of environmental stewardship.

While he doesn't publicly claim a specific religious identity, Reed doesn't wield these lofty principles in vain, nor do his words ring hollow. He inhabits them with deliberate respect, feeling and care — although you never could call him careful. On record as on stage, he frequently lets loose with a roar that feels like it's tearing itself from his vocal cords, as though he couldn't muffle it if he tried. (During the pull-no-punches opener "Hold Out" and the frenzied revival shout "The Strangest Thing," it's easy to picture the studio's audio meters lingering permanently in the red.)

It's the title song, an anthem that speaks of dogged faith in the face of adversity, that centers the album spiritually. Each instrumental part in "My Way Home" pulls just so against the others, giving the sense that the song is on the verge of falling apart, even as it marches resolutely onward and upward, eyes lifted. The story the lyrics tell is simple and straightforward: "When my way gets dark, I know you'll guide me / When my road is rough, you'll see me through," Reed sings. It's a story we've heard in countless hymns before. But in these reverent hands, guided by conviction in the music itself, it becomes something new.

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