In the wake of Bon Iver, Father John Misty and other major breakthrough artists of recent years, American acoustic singer-songwriters aren’t exactly in short supply, but every now and again, a new name appears who is different and talented enough to make you really sit up and take notice.
Christian Lee Hutson, a 29-year-old, hitherto unheralded native of Los Angeles, is just such a proposition. Although he recorded two impossible to find albums back in the early 2010s, in recent years his most notable work has been as a collaborator with the fast-rising indie chanteuse Phoebe Bridgers, co-writing songs on both her boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center projects. Bridgers returns the favour here, producing Beginners and providing backing vocals, and she’s joined by a number of other impressive guests, including Conor Oberst and Nathaniel Walcott of Bright Eyes, Meg Baird of Heron Oblivion and Lucy Dacus. For a man who has kept such a low public profile to date, Hutson is certainly well connected.
He may have taken his time to strike out on his own again, but Hutson’s album title is misleading, as Beginners feels like the work of a seasoned veteran rather than a wide-eyed novice. It’s poised and accomplished throughout, impeccably produced and arranged, with songs that feel confident and unhurried. The singer’s elegant finger-picked acoustic guitar and wispy, Elliott Smith-like voice are the core elements of the record, but they are supplemented unobtrusively by lush strings, horns and keyboards. Beginners feels warm and sonically rich without ever allowing Hutson to be overwhelmed. Beneath the handsome exterior though, something much darker lurks. Hutson’s lyrics offer an unflinchingly bleak perspective on human weaknesses that’s as stark as his melodies are lovely, with failed relationships a recurring theme.
While it’s a consistently strong collection, with no real missteps, certain tracks on Beginners really stand out. The quality peaks with the mid-album triumvirate of Unforgivable, Northsiders and Twin Souls. Unforgivable is a beautifully sad lament for the dying throes of a doomed affair, with a combination of world weary melancholy and rustic prettiness that recalls prime Townes Van Zandt. Northsiders tells the tale of two young, misfit lovers and boasts a glut of great lines – “I tried cocaine at my cousin’s house/I’m probably addicted now/the things that children lie about” and “Morrissey apologists/amateur psychologists/serial monogamists/we went to different colleges” being just two examples. Finally, Twin Souls is a wonderfully wistful blend of keyboards, cooing backing vocals and Burt Bacharach horns.
Although the subject matter of the songs is decidedly maudlin in mood most of the time, there are moments of wry humour too. This is perhaps best demonstrated on Get The Old Band Back Together Again, the most uptempo track on the album, which wittily observes the challenges of a musician trying in vain to recapture a period in their life that has moved on: “After the baby, everything changed/I only have a couple a night these days/And I’m glad that I came, I like the new name/But with Anna on bass, it really doesn’t feel the same.”
Beginners ends on a high with Single For The Summer; after all that’s gone before, Hutson displays a little cautious optimism as he proclaims “Things are gonna turn around any day now” before the song takes flight, building to a stirring conclusion with multiple voices, including many of his cast of starry connections, repeating his uplifting message. It’s a fitting end to one of 2020’s albums of the year to date.