It’s a common belief that the current generation doesn't boast the kind of songwriters that previous generations did. We don’t have a Springsteen; a Dylan; a Paul Simon. We don’t have a songwriter with both immeasurable talent and long-lasting, universal appeal. The cupboard is far from bare, though, even if most of mainstream America has not a clue in the world who this up-and-coming crop of songwriters are.
One songwriter that the wider world would do well to take a long look at is Seattle’s Rocky Votolato. Back with his fifth studio album, True Devotion, Votolato returns to the direction of Makers and Suicide Medicine after the brief departure in sound that was The Brag and the Cuss.
And a welcome return it is.
Votolato’s warm, inviting baritone grips you within the first few lines of “Lucky Clover Coin” and doesn't let go once over the course of the 10-song album. Votolato needs no more than some light acoustic progressions and his voice to let the story unfold. When he sings "you’re keeping me alive, 'til the sunrise shall spring roses in water" and his voice rises from the whisper it had carried through the verses, it’s evident that the Seattleite is in top form from the start. “Fragments” picks up more quickly, with Votolato stretching his vocal cords in rousing chorus’ bridged together by some quickly moving verses. It’s in such simple arrangements previously used by a myriad songwriters, yet Votolato is able to maximize every possible inflection and every possible lyric.
It’s the fourth song, though, “Eyes Like Static,” that show just why Votolato is one of the premier artists of the day. Above a simple three-chord progression, Votolato weaves a tale of confusion and uncertainty. As he croons "I hope you’ll be okay baby please tell me, if you’re gonna be alright / I know what I've broken and that it’s not easy, but I’ll stay up with you all night / If that’s what it takes to get back, the keys we carved in the sand," the song slowly builds before his voice loudens as he belts out "millions of voices on top of voices, 'til no one’s listening / let it break down this understanding, 'til nothing can be heard." It’s the ability to move back and forth in the vocal range and tie the lyrics to the different inflections that shows just how adept he is at the craft of songwriting.
“Sparklers” follows with Votolato’s tempered delivery and the delicate picking of the guitar reminding of the late Elliott Smith. The whispered vocals and plaintive subject matter evoke a real feeling of longing, a feeling that is expounded on in the slow-moving “Instrument.” It says a lot about Votolato’s abilities as a songwriter that not only can he carry a mood from song to song, but he can make each song so unique and full of personality; such is the trademark of all great songwriters from generations past.
The dark, harmonica-accompanied “Instrument” is perhaps the most emotional song on the album as Votolato sings "I just wanna come back home to you again, because I just wanna be free" above some heavy strumming, but it’s the middle verses, where it’s just Votolato and his guitar, that speak the loudest. Every second of the song has a real gravity to it, a real level of emotion that permeates through the music.
True Devotion should both assuage the fears of those put off by The Brag and the Cuss, and bring in fans hearing Votolato’s poignant ruminations for the very first time. Singer-songwriters may be a dime a dozen, and our generation may never have a Simon or a Springsteen, but so long as Rocky Votolato is putting out records, I think our generation is doing just fine.