Desktop users can click the button at the top right corner to listen to music from this album while reading the review. Mobile users scroll for content.
Steven A. Clark tells you what to expect right away with the title track of his debut album: "Roller coaster of love.”
The neo-soul man is ready to sweep you off your feet for the ups and downs of an R&B romance, but I’m leery. I’ve gotten burned by boys, girls, and bands like Clark in the past. Everyone’s watching for the next Drake or Frank Ocean but I was the one in 2011 hyping Theophilus London, who’s taken to having executive producer Kanye West try and save him from obscurity on his new album. I’ve been right – Mumford & Sons, man that backfired — but nothing stomps all over your ego like the crickets after talking up an artist. Clark sums up the feeling himself on his lead-off track. “I can't be falling in love," he croons and then just goes ahead and woos me anyway.
In my smitten stupor, picking the next R&B star seems to hinge on honesty. An open heart laid bare on expertly crafted, pulsing, flashing synthesizer can go a long way. A constant through the record, the vocals are as smooth as a long slow exhale after a deep draw on a cigarette. The billowing smoke and neon sounds create a neon over Miami after dark.
Lonely Roller is an album about relationships. With this most common of themes and simplistic lyrics, Clark walks a thin line. Someone underwhelmed by the beats will likely skewer young Mr. Clark for being formulaic. Maybe he just caught me in the right mood, but Clark is comfort food. He seems either less jaded or more interested in baring a genuine soul than many contemporaries. His humility shines through on the behind-the-scenes look at “Bounty” from Shaking Through, a documentary series chronicling the creative process of independent musicians in real time. (Check out the fantastic project from Weathervane Music, a non-profit supporting indie music here: https://weathervanemusic.org/shakingthrough).
Taken under the wing of Chris Swanson, who leads his label Secretly Canadian, Clark got a chance to work with The War On Drugs bassist Dave Hartley and keyboardist Robbie Bennett and Man Man drummer Christopher Powell on the song.
In decidedly un-hip-hop fashion, Clark admits to nerves and wavering confidence in his song. He wasn’t used to collaborating, but trusting was easy, he said, with the quality of musician around him, nudging the song in a great direction.
Music allows Clark to be vulnerable, like “Bounty,” a song about "hurting someone, a girl in this case, and just knowing I got to pay for it."
“One day she’s going to hunt me down,” he sings, his voice gradually melding with his female back-up singers, like the girl, or at least his guilt, catching up with him. With a bounty on his head, "Time Machine" is when his conscience catches up with him and Clark just wants to build a time machine to go back a change things. The song features ethereal sounds that fans of The War on Drugs will recognize and a lonely echo of Star Trek electronics beamed onto the dance floor. Then Clark changes sides of the love dynamic. "I want you back, but I guess we always want what we can't have,” sings the jealous Clark on “Can’t Have,” an absolutely fluid dance track so infectious there should be a vaccine.
With small town North Carolina roots, Clark is based in Miami these days so "She's In Love," the story about a country girl consumed by the bright lights of the city, might be autobiographical. Watching her drift away from Clark is accented by twinkling electronics and booming beats. Like smoke and mirrors, guitar and synth are used in spots throughout “Lonely Roller” — think Dark Side featuring Frank Ocean — and on this song to perfection.
The perils of love continue with the thrill of the chase on the title track. Tracing 30 years worth of hip-hop and R&B, Clark somehow weaves everything you don’t now loathe about Kid Cudi’s “Solo Dolo” and Prince in 1980s Miami. The steamy, smoky beats on the title track are the catchiest offering on the record. "Not You" is the come down. "I want love, but not you,” he sings tenderly, tackling a common, but baffling problem when you can’t drain the doubts about someone out of your head. It’s the cruelest point of a failing relationship, when nothing is wrong, but everything is wrong. Lying is the easy answer, but sends a sickening feeling of doom into the pit of your stomach.
Steven A. Clark has something, but the funny feeling might mean it’s not going to pan out. The ride through “Lonely Roller” has high highs and the lows are brief, but I’ve been wrong before.