Max Gowan is one guy with an acoustic guitar who released a 6-track EP of original compositions called Restless Heaven. The first thing I noticed is how exceptionally well Max keeps the rhythm going, a talent I usually hear only in the old Delta blues singers. Most singer-songwriters have a band to drive the tempo, but Max just has Max—his acoustic guitar and his voice.
Going completely solo is a pretty gutsy thing to do, because there you are, just you and your guitar, and there are no other sounds to distract the listener from your songs. That means your songs had better be damned good.
And these songs are damned good—exceptionally good. Max held my attention completely through three spins and I can’t wait to hear it again. Restless Heaven is a great EP by a young songwriter with unusual self-awareness and a complete lack of pretense. The songs are honest without being obvious, poetic without being artsy and absolutely captivating without any gimmickry.
A perfectly delightful guitar pattern with exceptionally clean and expressive picking opens the song “Half Soul.” Max shifts to a strum for the vocal, and oh my, what a pleasing voice! He’s definitely not an American Idol type or one of those drippy folksingers who have to imbue every syllable with emotion, but a singer with a warm timbre and clear articulation. The melody flows very nicely, with good spread across the staff that encourages you to hum along. And in keeping with the lovely music, Max proves to be a talented lyricist as well. The second verse in particular is remarkable for its insight into how the game is supposed to be played and how we as human beings hide our flaws and mistakes in a charade that helps no one and only extends the game-playing:
I got a breath of fresh ambition, it poured into my lungs
Now I’m stuck with tunnel vision, I’m just like everyone
If you pretend you’re doing better we all stay the same
I’ve never been afraid of confidence but at least I’m not insane, I’m just confused
I work with many people who still have that fresh ambition and the tunnel vision that goes along with it, and I suffer through their pretentiousness every day. What drives that pretense are the twin adult beliefs in the importance of convincing others that you know what life is all about, and that one should never reveal knowledge gaps or vulnerabilities. What Max asks us to accept is that we are all confused, and admitting it would be a big step towards clarifying our confusion. With its pretty music and thought-provoking lyrics, “Half Soul” is the perfect opening track.
“Lookout” opens with high fretboard picking and strumming, settling into a I-IV major/major seventh pattern as the baseline; as the song progresses, Max throws some interesting chord variations thrown into the mix. This song is an ode to his North Carolina home and the power of its natural landscape to bring clarity to the confused soul, and Max sings this with genuine feeling without going overboard à la John Denver. “Lookout” is a song that is very pleasing to the ear, and I would suggest that Tarheels everywhere embrace it and turn it into a hit single to offset the impression that the state legislature has turned North Carolina into something like the dystopian world described in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The title track has a very cool rhythm that Max plays with graceful ease. I’ll talk more about his guitar playing in a minute, but first I want to focus on the lyrics, which deal with the tug of opposites—in this case, the desire to explore the world and the pull to stay with the familiar and comfortable. His ambiguity is reminiscent of Memphis Minnie’s in “Nothing in Rambling,” and I get the impression that he’s as comfortable with that ambiguity as anyone can be. People have this silly idea that you have to choose one path or another: you don’t. It’s okay to feel restless, because when you stop feeling restless, you’re dead! Max makes his case less bluntly and more effectively than I just did:
I’m gonna step into the outside, I’m gonna see what’s real
I kind of like it on the inside, cause I don’t want to feel
It’s just a silhouette the kind I don’t forget
The hanging around outside my head
It’s just a silhouette
Back to Max’s guitar playing. I am always harping about how little touches make all the difference in music, and when he switches to high-fretboard picking on the word “silhouette,” I get goose bumps.
“Tide” has a loping, swaying rhythm accentuated by the picking style and the 3/4 time signature. This is a more reflective song, describing the discovery of one’s self-limitations and the need to allow others inside to help us through the rough patches when those limitations seem terribly confining. Sometimes a song will connect with you in a way that has nothing to do with the songwriter’s intention—a lyrical fragment just hits you at the right time and helps you express the thing that’s been making you feel a bit off-kilter. The couplet in “Tide” that hit me was “I’m living through other perspectives/’Cause right from the start I got tired of mine,” because with all the writing I’ve been doing the last few years and the lack of feedback in comparison to my output, I’m really getting tired of the “sound” of my own voice. Because I’m in a new city where I know very few people, I’m often stuck with my own perspective, which gets very tiring. I need to hear voices and views other than my own, and that’s really been an issue for me with the blog and the move to Europe.
Thanks, for clearing that up for me, Max!
“Bricks and Cobblestones” starts with a snappy little rhythm, again played extraordinarily well. The song is about the conflict between appearance and reality, and how our obsession with appearance makes it easy to avoid dealing with the things inside that really need fixing. Max’s insight into this age-old problem is to remind us that a flaw is not the end of the world and taking the time for a little bit of self-reflection goes a long way towards curing our need for magic tricks to distract others from our imperfections:
Bricks and cobblestones, your eyes are open and there’s no one home
Looks inviting on the surface but it’s fallin’ down
But I’m alive and well
As far as I can tell
And it’s paradise and hell
That we create for ourselves
I found a crack inside of my foundation but I’ll fix it soon
Work in progress it’s this constant process and it’s never through
You survive somehow
The light that won’t burn out.
The light-hearted rhythm reinforces the sentiment that we are not going to solve our problems by worrying ourselves to the point where adrenaline is squirting from our ears. Take your time, says Max. The light won’t burn out.
“Whistle in the Dark” seems to describe the looming going-away-to-college experience (or for those less fortunate, the going-away-to-boot-camp experience) that breaks up a lifetime of patterns and assumptions. While the song definitely has a sorrowful air, the lyrics remain firmly rooted in Max’s ambiguity and unusual ability to see both sides of the question. The final couplet is a perfect ending to a song about transitions, and a great motto for anyone wondering what life is all about:
There’s no promise, nothing’s promised, there’s no guarantee
That’s what makes it worth the time to me
This song has more musical variation than the others, suggesting that Max has a world of possibilities to choose from as he continues to develop.
I have to say I am thoroughly amazed by Restless Heaven . . . and very relieved. Max is one of many who have approached me on Twitter and requested a review, requests that always lead to a certain discomfort. I love exploring new music, but the truth is that because of the proliferation of recording software and the consequent increase in independent records, the quality of the music produced today has become iffy at best—and that applies to both the indies and the slaves of the record companies. While I support the democratization of music production, it has made things a bit awkward for the independent music critic who cannot hide behind the shield of the corporate façade. I’ve had to decline several requests based on incompatibility with my general tastes, and have had to refuse to consider several others because the music just wasn’t that good. I hate telling new artists that are just breaking in that their music didn’t grab me, and after agreeing to Max’s request, I had that uh-oh feeling that this could turn out to be yet another awkward moment in the life of a music blogger.
So, it is with great joy and palpable relief that I can say, “Hey, Max! You don’t suck!” To my readers, I will say that Max Gowan is an amazing talent, and if he chooses music as one of what will likely be many creative paths he chooses to follow in life, I want to hear what he comes up with every step of the way.
You can purchase this must-have collection on Bandcamp.