Ellis Paul was born in Aroostook County, Maine in 1965; he attended Presque Isle High School, where he played trumpet and excelled in track. He attended Boston college on a track scholarship; sidelined by a knee injury, he picked up an acoustic guitar and found the creative outlet he’d been looking for. Inspired by the folk traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he also developed a distinctive modern romantic folk sound — building on the work of James Taylor and Joni Michell — that helped pioneer the folk revival of the 90s. He became a fixture of Boston coffee houses, winning local awards and developing his sound. After two solid, self-released cassettes, he signed with Black Wolf records, releasing Say Something — produced by mentor and regional folk legend Bill Morrissey. The disc received critical acclaim and more local awards, setting the stage for two more powerful albums of reflective, compelling folk. Working with drummer and producer Jerry Marotta, he explored more complex sounds, perfecting a unique style of earthy, urbane folk based on glimpses of the lives of ordinary people. In 1998 he turned his gaze inward a bit, exploring the pain of his recent divorce and the relationships that gave him strength. Newly signed to Rounder, he entered the studio with Marotta and crafted his masterpiece.
Translucent Soul strikes the perfect balance between the introspective and the universal. Its starkly — often painfully — personal songs avoid self-indulgence, offering universal themes through individual stories. Paul also broadens his storyscapes, challenging himself in beautiful, rewarding ways. He kicks off with the aching, plaintive Take Me Down, a plea for the comfort and support of home during dark times. With an almost ethereal vocal unlike his usual powerhouse delivery, he creates the perfect opening touchstone for his exploration of pain and love.
I’m the One to Save is a dark story song, dropping the listener into a series of conversations in a decaying relationship. The chorus is a potent cry for help and attention as the commitment to care seeps out of the romance. From there Paul moves into the album’s most starkly personal song. Seven is the moment of realization as the singer’s experiences collide into a moment of hopeless clarity. Aching, soaring, and cathartic, it’s one of his finest songs and wraps up the album’s opening triptych nicely.
The personal narratives take a brief break for the haunting She Loves A Girl, a well-crafted song of love, rejection, honesty, and acceptance. Deftly crafted and perfectly executed, it’s a fine LGBT love song by a compassionate ally.
Bring Me Backwards uses story slices and courtroom imagery to bring back the personal narrative. Quietly harrowing, the song finds Paul trying to reconcile his life, yearning for lost times. As a painful remedy to such wishes, Did I Ever Know You? is a splash of cold realism, recognizing that idealizing the past ignores the pains and problems. With moving, almost whispered questions, it propels the narrative of separation. Live In the Now merges these approaches with a series of flashbacks balanced by a look at the musician’s life on the road. Choosing to take strength from the small joys of his current situation, Paul crafts a lovely personal anthem and one of the album’s most hopeful moments.
Things swirl into action with The World Ain’t Slowing Down, a driving rock track that recognizes the forces beyond our control. Even with the strongest determination to celebrate life, those forces can overwhelm. It features some of his finest lyrics, switching from casual banter to abrupt sideswipes, underscoring the song’s message. Angel In Manhattan provides another break in the narrative. A charming allegory about belief and the power of hope, it’s a witty, engaging song that shows off an unexpected non-literal side of Paul’s songbook. With I Won’t Cry Over You, he performs another bit of lyrical sleight-of-hand. The story of a frustrated woman realizing that she needs to move on from a stalled relationship, it’s a great narrative that also serves as a hopeful coda to his personal journey.Claiming his power by writing a song makes the personal declaration more universal and provides a safe distance for the singer to ease into his determination.
Things wrap up with the lovely title track, a meditation on the differences that bind us. A very personal reflection on his friendship with African-American folk singer Vance Gilbert, it’s a touching song of hope amidst the practical realities of modern life. Realistic and optimistic at once, Paul avoids cliché and saccharine with his heartfelt exploration of his own experience. After a thoughtful exploration of how relationships can go awry — and how to deal with life when they do — this look at the strength of personal connections is the perfect wrap-up, demonstrating Ellis Paul’s fundamental faith in humanity while tying together all the threads of his powerful songs.
FURTHER LISTENING: Ellis Paul is a powerful, challenging singer and songwriter who tells honest stories. All of his albums offer wonderful performances featuring his ringing vocals and musical skill. His first three professionally recorded discs, setting the stage for Translucent Soul, are all amazing. Say Something and Carnival of Voices are consistent, compelling sets; Stories is a bit more uneven but has much more powerful highs. American Jukebox Fables from 2005 has a slicker, more rock-oriented sound that works surprisingly well. The Day After Everything Changed is a loosely thematic disc based on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the finest of his more recent albums. Paul and Gilbert teamed up on Side of the Road, a set of covers that shows off the pair’s eclectic tastes and unique talents nicely while also showcasing their friendship and collaborative spirit. Essentials is a great two-disc compilation from 2006 that provides a solid overview of the first two decades of Paul’s beautiful musical journey.