One of the oldest adages in writing is “write what you know.” This rule is what helped Herman Melville write one of the most lauded novels in American history. Of course, if everyone followed this, the world would be a very dull place indeed and we would be without some of the most imaginative fiction and music ever created. Nebraska born singer / songwriter Josh Rouse, on the other hand, creates the perfect balance between writing from experience, and writing from experiment. Rouse explored the ’70s AM rock of his youth on his breakthrough album 1972, then his marriage started to fall apart and he moved out of the country, only to call his subsequent album Nashville. It was the best of Rouse’s career, until now. He moved to a small town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, explored his interest in Brazilian music, started his own label and immersed himself into what he does best, songwriting. The result is Subtítulo, an exquisite album which combines Rouse’s already inherent pop sensibilities, his alt-country and folk leanings, and a healthy dose of global community.
“Quiet Town” is the slow opener, acting as somewhat of an introduction, possibly referring to both the town in which he was raised, Paxton, Nebraska, or the Spanish town in which he was residing during the recording of the album. Rouse’s voice is sublime during the bridge as he sings about the difference between small town life and big city tours, “Oh, sometimes I miss the show, but I learned a long time ago.” “Summertime” is one of the first Brazilian influenced songs on the album, an acoustic samba number that belies the 1972-like lyrics about reminiscences of tube socks and listening to Purple Rain. Songs like “It Looks Like Love” and “Jersey Clowns” also have feet planted into two different times, with nods to the songwriting styles of Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, the latter two especially in “Jersey Clowns” with its biographical storytelling lyrics, and “Wonderful” with its Joel-like heartfelt words. Rouse’s music is so infectious, you’ll give yourself muscle cramps from trying to stop yourself tapping your feet from the start of another Brazilian tinged song, “His Majesty Rides.” His delivery in the second verse is signature Rouse, cheeky and unique.
The solid songwriting continues in “Givin’ It Up,” a song whose lyrics, about a repentant drunk, clash with the peppy upbeat musical background complete with disco strings. On top of all that, this album should stand as monument to the world debut of Paz Suay. Considering that this is Suay’s first ever vocal appearance, it’s surprising to read the number of reviews that refer to her as if she’s been around forever. Suay is Rouse’s girlfriend, whom he met in Spain, and convinced to sing on the track “The Man Who…” (no relation to the Travis album of the same name, or does it?) She reluctantly agreed, worrying about her extremely charming accent, while also providing the fantastic artwork of the album. The resulting track is one of the best on the album, a charismatic duet that will recall the amazing Getz / Gilberto tracks that became so famous, while at the same time updating the sound to include a little alt-country duet magic complete with pedal steel. The album ends on a bittersweet note with “El Otro Lado” whose subtítulo is “The Other Side.” Putting a Spanish title on a song reflecting on a broken marriage is somewhat a form of therapy, but Rouse thankfully shares his pain with us in a delicately penned track.
With every album, Josh Rouse seems to get better and better. 1972 firmly established the singer / songwriter as a pop savvy force to be reckoned with, while Nashville upped the ante with songs that defied genre. Subtítulo has gone even further, building upon his already accomplished songwriting with a more worldly feel and an added exquisite voice. This album is example to the reason I start my “Best of the Year” list early and adjust as time progresses. Even so, I would doubt that Subtítulo would be moved out of my top ten.