Known in Nashville’s songwriter circles for his clear, powerful voice as well as his songwriting acumen, Sean McConnell has been making his own records - from songs he writes for himself, usually by himself - for two decades now and but it’s been the past decade or so where his music has taken off. After a couple deals with major indies like Rounder Records for 2016’s self-titled album and the 2018 acoustic follow-up Undone, Sean opened up his own label/studio and has released this new record, like he has all but the three most-recent albums, through his own accord, indie DYI style. That indie style doesn’t mean the hard to pigeonhole singer/songwriter doesn’t make records as good as the mainstream big labels. In fact it’s as good or as clear as any of those records.
Very much his own artist, McConnell possesses — as mentioned above — a powerful voice, the kind of voice mosts artists would dream to possess. It’s a unique instrument able to twist and turn as the lyrics of the records come into as much focus as the melodies, there are times where he soars high like Vince Gill or Shay Mooney, other times he gets going a la Matthew Bellamy (of Muse) and still, other times there’s hints of Keith Urban in other places. As great as Sean’s voice is on all of these tracks (check out the achingly nuanced performance on “Nothing Anymore”) it’s the storyteller style he brings to the record a la Springsteen, Prine, and Townes Van Zandt.
With a nostalgic story and melody to match, “Wonder Years” rivals the best of McConnell’s work with the kind of story that brings the listener instantly back to their own visual moments of their life. It’s a theme he’s mastered throughout several records now (both his own and as a co-writer with other artists) and every time, like here, the songs remain vital and fresh. The opener “I Still Believe In You” is an introspective look at his own past of relationships with distinctive lyrics and just like a lot of country music’s best heartbreak songs, “I Still Believe In You” finds McConnell balancing the emotions of the relationship as a man who put everything into something which ultimately is going to be undone but even as that happens, his unwavering love and faith in his former partner is still there. This theme is explored on the emotive “I Built You Up” to different depths too, with melodies which brings a classic soul sonic template backing the songs like it’s a long-lost Stax track.
Unafraid of collaborations, Sean McConnell works with several of Nashville’s best indie artists on this record, including Natalie Hemby, The Wood Brothers, Dan Tyminski, Audra Mae and Fancy Hagood. Hagood provides harmony vocals on “What The Hell Is Wrong With Me” a melodically rollicking look at why someone does the things they do in life. They know they shouldn’t do something yet there they are doing that exact thing. Hemby joins on the lovely “Waiting to Be Moved.” The song, which is co-written by Hemby and Barry Dean (one of only two songs to come out of Nashville co-writing sessions on this record), is about someone wandering the earth skeptic of love and any kind of philosophy only to be shook to their core by the one person who changed everything. That’s a powerful kind of love and one that’s often explored but rarely as hauntingly beautifully as on “Waiting To Be Moved.”
I’ve often wondered why other artists haven’t cherry-picked songs from McConnell’s albums (apart from having to compare vocals) but when I hear a song as inspirational as “Leave The Light On,” I can almost envision an artist (Jennifer Hudson? Little Big Town?) taking on this kind of song and turning it into a Grammy-like vocal moment. It’s an emotional, emotive song and one that McConnell himself actually delivers and in a “just world,” it’d be his own Grammy moment. He closes the album with “Remember You’re Here,” a song that’s all about remembering to actually live and to not let the bad stuff get to you. Roll with the punches and live your life to the fullest instead of living in the nuance and fear. It’s a sweet, honest ending to the record, a song he clearly intended to let people in on the simple power of music as it is like a lot of demos with simple acoustic guitars and his powerful voice leading the way with crickets (or cicadas) of his backyard as “harmony vocalists.”
Sean McConnell is simply one of the music world’s best kept secrets. A Horrible Beautiful Dream is the third studio album in a row (after Sean McConnell and 2019’s Secondhand Smoke) that has transfixed me. This guy is simply one of the best songwriters working in any genre of music and while he’s had success as a co-writer of hits from country, pop and rock artists, it is his own music which is where he truly shines. Do yourself a favor and get yourself a copy A Horrible Beautiful Dream (and his other albums, including My Sister, My Brother a wonderful EP with Garrison Starr which recalls the wonderful duet records from Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris).