Chris St. John’s particular brand of Americana has corralled considerable acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for his earlier album Fly Away. His new collection The Sinner and the Saint picks up where his past release leaves off and delivers eleven tracks illustrating his ample growth. His musicianship, vocals, and writing point the way to how Americana music can continue flourishing in an increasingly rootless and digitized world. It does so without succumbing to the countless cliches marring other’s attempts in this vein. The New York-based artist has carved out a specific niche in our musical firmament and The Sinner and the Saint seeks to expand his purview.
The wind-swept and haunted heartbreak of “Black and Blue” begins the album in sterling fashion. Shimmering guitar work leads the way into the song and, when it kicks off in earnest, St. John and his bandmates generate impressive energy. It’s far from purist. The song’s assertive backbeat gives “Black and Blue” rock and roll muscularity without upsetting the track’s balance. His lyrics are strong without ever risking pretension. “I Love You” is a plaintive and lyrical testimony to that emotion’s redemptive power and the song’s texture shimmers once again. His melodic virtues are beyond question and the emotive spirit inhabiting his voice adds reams of credibility to an already affecting performance.
The album’s fourth track “The Hard Way” is rife with inventive twists and turns. It’s much grittier than the earlier performances without veering far from his established course. Few listeners will chafe over the cut’s instructive air. St. John is sharing his life’s experiences with listeners, but never in a strident manner. He wrestles with mighty emotions during the title track. “The Sinner and the Saint” addresses dichotomies in his soul with breathtaking directness and vulnerability. He develops the song with slow and thoughtful patience. It pays off with one of the album’s deepest moments.
“Harbinger” boasts surprising jazzy inflection that St. John deftly mixes with his customary neo-folk approach. Guitar is still crucial to the song, but the piano vies for importance. The imaginative peaks of the song set it apart from an already fine album. The sweet despair of “Long Goodbyes” never leaves listeners mired in despair thanks to St. John’s gift for evoking melody. He has a pleading tone in his voice that makes his reflections all the more poignant.
A brief coda ends the album. “The Disguise” runs eighteen seconds but works as an elegant bookend to the preceding material. The song’s single verse ties in thematically with the earlier ten songs and St. John invests the words with the same emotion defining the longer tracks. Chris St. John’s The Sinner and the Saint doesn’t try to remake popular song in his image, but his individuality burns through during every track. It’s eminently relatable while still attesting to the hard-won experiences producing each of the album’s eleven songs. There’s little doubt that four releases into his recording career, St. John is peaking with this collection. There will be more triumphs to come.