Album Review: The Dark & The Light

November 19, 2020


Emiliano Baird

A lot of popular music you hear is about heartbreak, anger and a little bit of self-boasting, and a lot of that music comes in the form of rock and pop. But here we have a change of pace with music, talking about mythology and folk-lore with magnificent story-telling skills in the form of a blues, soul, and folk fusion. Here we have Shawn James and his most recent album “The Dark & The Light,” an album that sonically has the most to offer within a variety of composition and lyrical storytelling. Shawn James has graduated from having the sound of intimate acoustics with simple compositions, to a full band to back his soul grabbing vocals and variety of colorful musical arrangements. 

You may not know of his name, but if you’ve played any video games you may have heard of one of his songs. In The Last Of Us 2, his song “Through The Valley” became a feature and it gave James a good amount of publicity for his music and this recent album. James comes out of Chicago, Illinois and his sound is a colorful combination of deep Mississippi delta blues, folk, and soul music all stemming from ecstatic joy and painful anguish. His lyrics display his intriguing writing skills and provide great hooks to draw a listener in and keep them listening while the bluesy instrumentals set the tone and atmosphere. James’s work is truly one of a kind. 

The first track off of this album is “Orpheus,” a song that hits the ground running with James’s confident vocal deliveries with the backing band slowly coming in. Shawn fully delivers with dramatic vocals talking about a strong bond of love willing to go through the underworld of hell to bring this person back to life. It makes a great nod to the story of the greek musician and poet Orpheus who travels through hell in order to save his wife from Hades. Musically this song is energetic and uplifting, and the bluesy backing band is able to keep you moving through this tale of love and courageousness. This is overall a great start to the album and gives you an idea of what the mood for the rest of this album will be. “Through the woods, no care in mind and you were so blind, snake bit and you were gone. I will follow you through the gates of hell, I will save your soul, I will make you whole, I will not back down. I will shatter death’s crown and bring you back to life.”

Following the courageous tale of “Orpheus” we have the two part song “Love Will Find A Way I/II” a two sided song about sorrow and overcoming a terrible loss. The first part of the song takes us into the perspective of James talking about the death of his father when James was only the young age of five. He gives us his sorrowful story of his alcoholic father who ended up dying because of all the drinking that he had done. James was lost after his father’s death and he had to deal with living in the shadow of his father’s mistakes. But James never claims to be fully lost, because of his struggles it has made him a stronger person and he shows that he is able to carry on without the weight of his father’s death. Instead he would rather take all the pain and “turn it into something divine,” this being his music. The first part of “Love Will Find A Way” mainly focuses on James struggling with his father’s death and having to pick himself back up and move on past it to make him a better person. Then we’re taken into “Love Will Find A Way II,” a much softer part of the song duo which has James talking to the audience himself, giving motivational lines to his listeners in his hopes of him being able to help lift up his audience after sharing his story. James shows that he can relate to his audience and that he wants to help others who struggle with grief because he doesn’t want others to go through the same thing he did. This sad but wholesome ballad is the utmost meaningful song on the album given its context and weight it carries on Shawn James. It shows how much more open he is with his struggles and for that it fully earns respect to him. “In my younger days I never could find a light to guide my way, now I know I was only hiding in the shadows of his vast mistakes.” -Love Will Find A Way I. “When you’re all alone you can’t find a place to call home, if you’re on the edge of a cliff you can’t find your grip, don’t lose hope.” -Love Will Find A Way II. 

Now we’ll be getting into probably my favorite song off of the album, “The Curse Of The Fold.” This song is motivational as well as metaphorical and it takes a little bit of explanation to understand what it means. When James deeply sings the lines of, “…the only thing that can hurt us is the curse of the fold” and, “until he chose his fortune as the curse of the fold.” You might wonder what the curse is. A little bit of poker terminology here, to fold is to essentially give up or drop out of the current round of the game. Shawn James here uses this metaphorically as a problem of giving up, which plagues a lot of people when things get difficult. So essentially this “curse of the fold” is the problem of people giving up. James built on this in his song, talking about how he had experienced another person who had a certain passion or “fire” for moving on to be better in life, until he had murdered certain people which in James’s case is him choosing to give up and give in to his anger. Now that he has murdered those people, his future is essentially chosen for a life in prison and he can’t do anything about it anymore (unless he gets away with it). Then James goes on to talk about his own experiences, how people would talk him down of climbing this metaphorical mountain of struggle, until he finally did overcome this mountain and now people don’t want to congratulate him or acknowledge it or anything, they essentially just turn their heads. And this is where James realizes that people will always try to bring you down whenever you’re in a bad spot or even if you just want to try and overcome a difficult task, and that’s pretty much how the song came to be. The song musically escalades into an intense little piece of string arrangements, with James’s soft vocal passages turning into intense, heartfelt deliveries. The band slowly comes in instrument by instrument until finally it explodes with the droning bass note and somber high string solo. This track ultimately expresses pain with being by yourself through your own little journey, and I can’t say that I relate to it, but I understand its message, and everything about the song lyrically and musically I love, which makes one of my favorite tracks of Shawn James’s discography. 

The rest of the songs off this album vary in style from uplifting tracks such as “There It Is” and “The Weak End” which is all about being strong to find yourself and wanting to live your best life. “Burn The Witch” speaks for itself and adds on to James’s skillful story telling with folklore and building into a suspenseful piece of composition. Then we have the hard blues of “Haunted” which talks about evil within oneself and being able to grow after only going through your struggles. The last two tracks are very heartfelt pieces, “Chicago” is an ode to James’s hometown with his own twist of his sound and masterful poetry, telling of his homesickness and giving us a little bit of his own background. “When I’m Gone” is James directly talking to his listeners telling us that he hopes that whenever he is gone from the world that he will still be remembered for his works and that his efforts were actually worth something, it’s a bit of a string tugger and can really make you feel empathy or pity for James. 

The Dark & The Light is in my opinion, Shawn James’s best album so far in his discography. It is consistent in its materials and shows James’s improvement as a writer and composer from his last two, self-released albums. I am excited to hear Shawn James with a full band sound and this is only the beginning of the new sound of Shawn James. I can surely hope that the future material to come from James can only improve. 

Favorite Tracks: The Curse of the Fold, Burn The Witch, Chicago, Orpheus

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