Album Review: ‘Shipbuilder’ by Drew Gibson


by John Ellis

“Nobody knows anything.” William Goldman

As an Oscar winning screenwriter, Goldman, with the quote above, was talking about the mystery of cinema – what makes a movie a success? No one can legitimately say because, “nobody knows anything.” Elaborating further, Goldman added, “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

You would think that a highly feted screenwriter would know exactly what makes for a successful movie, but Goldman was far more honest than many of his peers hawking “how to be a Hollywood success” books. The writer of All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, and other highly acclaimed films knew that his success was due as much to being in the right place at the right time as it was to his prodigious talent. In the end, there’s no accounting for why one artist reaches the level of broader cultural consciousness and another worthy artist does not.

Goldman’s quote rings in my ears while listening to Shipbuilder, the latest album from singer-songwriter Drew Gibson. A musically dynamic, lyrically intriguing, and warm record, Shipbuilder further solidifies Gibson as one of the most interesting and artistically stimulating artists making music. Unfortunately, as William Goldman alluded to, Gibson’s talents and textured music aren’t enough to ensure an audience. Like other artists, Drew Gibson is at the mercy of the fickle winds of exposure. From my perspective having watched, listened to, and conversed with Drew over the last four years, those winds have not blown in the direction that his voice as a musician has earned.

A little over four years ago, I received an email from a musician asking me to review his latest album. At the time, as a writer for No Depression and Bearded Gentlemen Music, it was a rare day that I didn’t receive multiple such requests. The vast majority of the time, though, I would hit “delete” without every reading more than a sentence or two of the email, if even that much. I don’t remember why now, but something about the email from Drew Gibson stood out to me and so I clicked the link to the music file containing 1532.

It didn’t take long into track one, “Bettie-Jane,” before I knew that I would be reviewing the album. In that review, which I cross-posted on my blog and No Depression, I wrote:

Drew Gibson’s music, like most good art, is personal. And, like most good art, it’s not a personal that is shrouded in moments and thoughts that are so private as to be inaccessible. Gibson has the dual strength of a songwriter who crafts lyrics that allow for the listener to use their own lives as the primary means of navigation through the songs, and the strength of a singer that shares without narcissism – his voice allows the listener to enter into the story as a participant, not as an awed and yet distant observer. These strengths are bolstered by tightly crafted music played by musicians who love their craft.

I ended that review urging readers to buy 1532, an album that earned him critical praise from a variety of sources. Four years later, I sat across from Drew in my living room and heard him laughingly confess, “Compliments don’t pay the bills.”

I asked him how many units he had sold of the previous record, but he demurred. Instead, we had a conversation about the challenges of finding an audience while striving to continue to grow as an artist. Drew compared it to a ship being carried along by the ebb and flow of the tide and waves. “To stay above it and keep going,” he explained. “I’ll build my own ship.”

And what a ship he’s building.

As can probably be guessed, Shipbuilder has its name because of this theme – striving for artistic excellence within a cultural sea seemingly intent on sinking the dreams of artists who prize integrity. The album consists of nine tracks that use a poet’s imagery to call the listener into Drew’s joys, his dreams, his worries, and his resilience. Dave Hadley’s excellent pedal steel guitar continues to be a highlight on Drew Gibson’s albums. This time around, though, Drew shows off more his guitar chops. In doing so, Shipbuilder contains a musically meatier heft, but without distracting from his thought provoking and beautiful lyrics.

However, I must admit that in the runup to the album’s release, I was skeptical that Drew would be able to reproduce the magic of 1532, one of my favorite albums of 2015.

Confessing my skepticism to him – skepticism that proved unfounded, by the way – I asked Drew if he had any worries about artistically slipping a little on Shipbuilder. He told me that starting off he knew that it would be a challenge to craft an album that continued to move him forward artistically. However, he said that during the songwriting process for Shipbuilder, “[it] became as personal an album as 1532 – life changes, marriage. The songs on this album reflect where I’m at personally.”

Continuing, he explained that he wanted Shipbuilder to be sonically different from 1532. The end result, he believes, “is freer, more creative, and more chances are taken … 1532 was more compressed. This is more open, more dynamic, warmer.”

Not disagreeing with him because I, too, find his latest album richer, I asked him why he believed that Shipbuilder was better than his previous offering. Giving insight into a songwriter’s soul, he opened up that this time around, “I wasn’t really strapped to something. I felt less pressure from a writer’s standpoint. Writing about my family [on 1532], I was tightly wound. With this album, I wanted the musicians to jam more, to be freer.”

At that point, Drew stopped, pointed at my speakers, and exclaimed, “What can lift this music at any point? Hand claps. Tambourine. The hook guitar out of the right speaker, ‘Everything I Ever Did Was Wrong’ that’s playing now – defines this song.”

I must say that one of the privileges of writing about music is being able to sit down with the musician and listen to them talk about their music while the album is playing. Drew emailed me the album about a week before he and I sat down to talk about it. During the interim, I listened to Shipbuilder at least a dozen times and fell in love with it (frankly, it was love at first listen). Moments like the one recorded above, though, helped open my ears to the many nuances and artistic choices that I had previously taken for granted.

Shipbuilder is an album birthed out of genuine experience and then crafted by wonderful musicians led by one of the most underrated and underappreciated singer/songwriters working today. In a musical landscape shaped by streaming services and large corporations, it’s rare to find an album that contains the richness and rewards of Shipbuilder. It’s even rarer to find as artistically mature of an artist like Drew Gibson who continues to strive to grow in ways that help him better connect with his voice, the music, and his audience. Unfortunately, due in large part to the musical landscape of our society, compliments are Drew’s main rewards for his efforts. Mimicking the conclusion of my 1532 review, I urge you to listen to and consider buying Shipbuilder. Adding to that, help change the current of fortune for a musician whose voice deserves a broader audience by introducing Drew Gibson to your family and friends.

Purchase Shipbuilder by clicking here.

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