All of small town North America is a stage. That’s how the saying goes doesn’t it? Whatever it is, John Southworth is privy to it and takes advantage of its truth. There is vast space to set characters free. Endless love for them to chase. A million roads to drive down, and countless twists and turns.
In this particular midwest fever dream, the scene is set even before the conductor strikes up the band. It’s written on the curtain: Small Town Water Tower. It’s a setting vague enough to be anywhere and that’s the point. Southworth wants you to use your imagination and if you do, the details of what you are about to witness won’t matter. They don’t matter because specificity and clear intent closes your mind off to all the glorious possibilities of what could be. It feels like there should be some sort of throughline, some signifier of whether this whole thing is a comedy or a tragedy but once again, that’s up to you.
One thing is for certain, the soundtrack to this piece of theater matches the scope of the story. It’s epic rock n’ roll. The kind without boundaries. The kind that no matter how hopeful or danceable, the innate melancholia of its creator permeates the sound. More Bowie than Cobain. There is an otherworldly coolness to it all, like Southworth has seen what lies ahead and it’s not spectacular, but we must go there anyway and he is at peace with that. You can hear it in his voice, feel it in the grooves and see it in the layered textures in between.
Look no further than album opener “Blue Sleeves”. Southworth is looking for someone, somewhere, and as he “steps over Christ in the jungle” the beauty and absurdity of this search explodes in a wash of thunderous, distorted tom rolls. “You’re no fun” he accuses. It’s a taunt; think big, have some damn fun because the details do not matter.
Just as you think everything is looking up for Southworth during the triumphant and open-hearted “Champion of Love” we learn that maybe that love doesn’t exist in the present on “Lucid Love”: “Now I fall when I used to be able to walk through the wall, when I used to be able to hear your heart call. Now I never get back, can never get back to your lucid love”. The pain in Southworth’s voice, sounding particularly Starman-like, is elevated by the chorus singing behind him as if he is looking down on his past self from space, warmed but gutted by the memory.
The story, assuming there is one at all in this production, gets murkier as you listen but the music gets better, elevated by the sheer wonder of it all. Wonder is the word you’ll search for throughout Small Town Water Tower. It’s a rare feeling to have when so much of musical culture these days leaves nothing to the imagination. Artists spell out their clearest intentions behind every single thing they do and it completely robs the music of any mystery. John Southworth exudes mystery. It’s beautiful and refreshing. Small Town Water Tower’s greatest strength, beyond the unknowns, is theatricality. It pushes the album forward and makes it feel larger than life. There is a certain feeling in the music, of wonder perhaps, that makes everything seem bigger than it is on the surface. It forces you to dig deeper and gain something real and meaningful from all the wonder John Southworth creates.