Christopher Paul Stelling is no stranger to labor. For several years now, the Brooklyn-based songwriter has spent his time touring relentlessly, stomping on stages all over the country and overseas. Through these performances and his earlier releases, 2012’s Songs of Praise and Scorn and 2013’s False Cities, Stelling created a groundswell thanks to his vigorous vocal style and the head-spinning wizardry he displays each time his hands touch a guitar. Now, he’s making his debut on the Anti- label with the release of Labor Against Waste, which, as its title suggests, is the songsmith’s most masterfully crafted effort to date.
Pulsating opener ”Warm Enemy” bursts with the brightness of a sunrise as Stelling greets the day with wide-awake fingerpicking and spirited stomps and claps. He sings, “Time don’t mean nothin’ if you waste it,” which could probably serve as a substitute for caffeine if regularly repeated in a morning routine. “Revenge” picks up right where “Warm Enemy” leaves off, offering grass-is-greener optimism accompanied by bluegrass instrumentation with the recurring lyric “Ain’t no sweetness in revenge.” Stelling takes a moment for introspection on “Scarecrow,” only allowing for brief interjections of drums, harmonica and horns. Undoubtedly, this album will bring many first-time listeners to Christopher Paul Stelling, many of whom may draw default comparisons to other singer/songwriter types, perhaps based on little more than the aesthetic of six strings and a voice. However, Stelling seems to welcome the idea of standing stark, prime to be picked apart as he likens himself to the scarecrow whose “arms are spread out wide like he was measuring the fields.”
Halfway through Labor Against Waste, it becomes extremely evident how seamlessly Stelling can shift gears. Despite his mischievous quip, “My daddy always told me not to play with matches,” middle track “Horse” is a thoroughbred barnburner. The strum of a rogue stallion guitar pulls a bandwagon of rapid classic country sounds highlighted by fiddles so frantic they might make the devil forget that time he went down to Georgia. By the time “Death of Influence” begins, the sun that shone at the start of the album has long since gone down. As the song ominously swells like a storm cloud, Stelling sings about seeing the eyes of Jesus, Satan, liberty and injustice all while ambient sounds creep in and out of the sonic periphery. Still, in “Hard Work,” Stelling proves he can’t be overcome by the darkness. Even though he’s “seen some things that will twist your spine,” he repeatedly preaches, “I know my work is never done ‘til I can see the good in everyone.” Filtering out instinctive cynicism truly can be the hardest work done in a day.
Rather than resting himself in final track “Too Far North,” Stelling instead pays homage to someone recently laid to rest. The composition of his chords is almost reminiscent of classical pieces like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, perfectly demonstrating the musical masterminding at work. For reasons that may be more obvious at this point than he realizes, Stelling sings, “Unlike the rest, I will remember you best for that restlessness that filled up your bones.” An appreciation of restlessness is no surprise coming from an artist who utilizes that trait so well.
In its mere 40-minute duration, Labor Against Waste somehow encapsulates what feels like a full 24 hours. Unlike some days that tend to just breeze by, though, this is one without repose. It’s full of purpose and unyielding passion, manifesting in a tireless labor of love that refuses to waste a single second on distractions. This, seemingly, is all in a day’s work for Christopher Paul Stelling.