Headstrong: an honest review

It’s interesting how art is given and received.

In order to give a shit about a track, it has to connect with you in some way. Sometimes there’s a record that hits you in the gut because there is a perfect combination of musically intricate effortlessness and a profound set of lyrics, which makes the moment you first heard it unforgettable.

Other times there is just a specific tie you have to the music, be it a memory, one captivating line of lyrics, one simple guitar riff that you just admire.

A lot of the time, appreciation that is had for music is light hearted. But the way music gets you to listen, the way it automatically sets people to prick their ears up and feel involved on some level is truly magical.

Joe Keeley is a 21 year old singer songwriter from Suffolk. After being raised on classic country music and heavily influenced by his musician father, Joe left school at 17 to pursue a career in music and has been captivated by authentic alt-country Americana ever since. Joe has played in many bars around the country both playing independently and as a duo with his father (being known as ‘The Keeley’s’). He also earns his living busking and networking with many other people in the music industry, having collaborated with other musicians on social media platforms.

Having grown up being somewhat of a misfit with a stubborn passion for a very niche genre of music, writing songs that are authentic and from truth is very important to Joe. His music is very lyric driven, drawing on his own experiences along with the inspiration taken from his love of classic country songs.

He has recently released his album, “Headstrong”, which is the product of 4 years work.

The album is made up of 9 tracks, which showcases his range of being able to tune in with harsher songs inspired by his rougher attitude; as well as softer, more connected songs which allow him to speak his mind and explore his thoughts. For the most part, Joe uses story-telling lyrics fitted into a country theme to capture the essence of artists he has looked up to in attempt to mature his technique over the years; the likes of Jason Isbell and Steve Earle.

For the most part this album is easier to appreciate if you’re someone who likes finding sentiment in songs. There are more easy listening songs such as No Good Livin’, Cold Heart Blues and The Last Time which make for good background noise as they’re catchy and musically strong. As for the other 6 songs on the album, they take a bit more listening to and aren’t as catchy- they may be more appealing to songwriters than song-listeners. Joe shows a real talent for being able to story-tell and get his thoughts on a page, which is an increasingly popular skill to have in music. His material on this album is almost like a revival of older styles of music, with the simplicity of acoustic instruments and a voice with something to say.

No Good Livin’;

Though this may be an unpopular opinion, No Good Livin’ is probably my least favourite track on the album. A lot of the songs on this album are uncomfortable to listen to because it strikes a chord emotionally, which makes me want to dislike them, but I can’t. In my opinion this song makes for more easy listening, so even though it has very heavy themes, it is disconnected enough from the average listener’s life and persona that it can be perceived as ‘fun’. The song is written from the point of view of a character who is on the run from the police after committing a series of crimes, involving murder, theft and drugs.

The protagonist speaks about how he feels as though he is stuck in this life, but every now and then there is a reality check that this lifestyle will likely catch up to him one day. The song tells a good story, and in my opinion it’s quite experimental. The sound of the track puts you in the mind of somebody who would be on the run. Each verse has a similar pace, whereby the protagonist is talking you through his day. When the chorus hits, it’s more intense and the music speeds up and it feels as though this is when the protagonist would be on the run and full of fear.

The song is hard to follow lyrically, but it is undoubtedly a very good country track. Joe’s gravelly vocals adds to the song’s rough kind of feel.

Headstrong;

Headstrong is probably the prettiest track of the album. The twanging of the banjo overlaying the more sturdy and grounded sounds of the guitar gives it bluegrass kind of feel- a type of music that’s hard to come across these days. Unlike some of the other songs on the album this track gives the impression that it’s personal. In a word, I would call this song pure.   

The Last Time;

The Last time was a song which barely made it on to the album as Joe claims it was written in 10 minutes, and yet I would argue it’s one of the songs that captivates you most. It’s a personal preference of mine when songs are just poured out seemingly effortlessly, like you’re channelling raw emotion- and that is how this song both sounds and reads. The soft acoustics are paired with belting vocals which is forceful and conveys a lot of emotion, making it easy to connect with on some level. This song definitely has some soul in it and I’m not sure what kind of bracket I’d put it in, but that’s what I like about it. It stands out.  

Cold Heart Blues;

Cold Heart Blues is probably the most upbeat song on the album, which is rough. The album is quite heavy hearted in spirit, but it’s catchy enough to carry it along. Cold heart blues has a bluesy feel to it (shocker) with tones of country rock and roots music; masking the lyrics of a guy who is speaking of how he’s repressing all his hurts and living a very hedonistic lifestyle. The track has strong influences of country artists who have done the same- lost souls who are trying to get by and creating with the part of them that remains at the core of their being.

Camden Street Bar;

Other tracks on the album such as No Good Livin’ make it very clear to see that Joe uses his imagination to put himself in scenarios and character roles to be able to write something which captivates an audience. His ability to home in on the story, relate to the feelings of each character in each scenario, and apply the feelings to dynamics he hasn’t been in literally is what makes him stand out and allows him to connect with listeners. Camden street bar is one of the more lyrically strong songs telling the story of a resident musician at a bar in Camden, and the kind of people he meets. He sees parts of himself in those around him making him feel connected to them. He sees sides of each character that may be overlooked by any other passer-by because he is able to see different sides of them, which is a really touching concept. Giving people the time of day is a valuable thing. His storytelling lyrics are paired with the background music of a simple sounding, melodious guitar tune- very fitting for getting people to listen to what he’s saying.

Half Broke Horses;

Half broke horses is a song that makes you go ‘oof’ when you listen to it. It’s heavy. The song consists of a one-way conversation between the singer and an ex-lover who has now moved on and found happiness with another person. Although the singer acknowledges that the relationship was unsustainable for both parties, he finds himself romanticising the past and believing that he will never find happiness the way she has; “have kids and raise them well, and I’ll still be raising hell” is a lyric which captures this feeling best. He also acknowledges that this person deserves the love that they have found. It’s a very emotive and thought-provoking song if you’re someone who has found yourself in a similar position. The chorus sounds particularly sentimental, with a distinct and resonant guitar playing behind the lyrics.

New Dunwich Post;

New Dunwich Post is my favourite song on the album. It’s written from the standpoint of a guy who works on a farm, the slow acoustic sound gives it a really vulnerable feel and in my opinion it’s one of those songs that just makes you stop and listen intently. With each chord played and each bar spoken, Joe reveals a piece of information which is stirring around in the protagonist’s’ thoughts- a relevant part of the story being told. It’s like you’re hanging on eagerly to discover what the protagonist is getting at and feeling all the emotion of the character along the way. The song ends with the line “I’ll tell you lies about how I don’t care”, a hard-hitting lyric as it’s the accumulation of what the character has been getting at this whole time while remorsefully reminiscing.

Cover Me Up;

Joe’s approach to music (as previously mentioned) is strongly shaped by the artists that he has looked up to during his formative years. His style and song-writing is reminiscent of the likes of Hayes Carll, Colter Wall and Jason Isbell; who are reviving and revolutionising Country music in a new and fresh way. Joe included a cover of Cover Me Up (A Jason Isbell song) on the album, it’s done very well in appreciation for the Artists influences.

Gasoline;

Gasoline is more stand alone. Dark in a different way. It’s a more objective and literal track on the album that is less open to interpretation. It sounds haunting, with chiming chords and the hoarse sound of Joe’s voice singing as a man who has been raised to be a figure of old-fashioned masculinity. The lyrics speak of his inner conflict between knowing that he could have been a better person, and he could have been proud of the man he had potential to be; but he feels as though his soul is too tarnished to be able to save.

Gasoline has a Celtic kind of feel to it, particularly at the end. The song explores themes of toxic masculinity and the way we raise children with expectations of who they should become. It’s a thought-provoking, progressive track.

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