Three years after the release of In Deepest Blue, Vancouver-based folk artist Joshua Hyslop follows up his sophomore LP with Echos, his third full-length record so far.
Always a more-than-capable singer-songwriter, Echos shows off Hyslop’s control as a creator, his style never getting so upfront so as to become overbearing, but his music never leaving any doubts as to just how much of a natural he is. Hyslop rarely says anything explicitly but maintains a subtle but undeniable discussion about loss and encouragement, occasionally even wondering about God’s role in it all. Following his last two LPs, Echos may find Hyslop in a place where he’s not totally reconciled with his past or sure about the course of his future, but he’s certainly getting into his own as an artist.
Opening with “Say it Again,” Echos lays down its folksy, frontier foundation, but Hyslop’s voice quickly establishes itself as the record’s centerpiece. Despite the track’s domineering strings, it becomes clear to even the most casual listener that Hyslop’s voice is something special. Throughout the track he’s able to croon effortlessly; there’s never a moment where it feels like he’s reaching — it’s all too easy. His songwriting is fairly safe, but equally sincere throughout. It’s a strong start, and with a voice like his, the only real drawback is that you never get the sense that Hyslop is really challenging himself vocally.
The gospel influences that were only hinted at in the beginning of the record become fully realized on “Stand Your Ground.” The track is encouraging, almost edifying even, but at the same time Hyslop does well do avoid the naïve optimism that often marks songs that have a gospel tint.
In “Home” and “Long Way Down” we see maybe the best songwriting on the entire record. These songs are the first real sign of the introspective hopelessness that sits below the surface of Echos, a departure from what’s up to this point been a fairly upbeat outlook. “Home” shines for its efficiency, its lack of needless ruminations making it feel a lot shorter than its 3:48 runtime. On “Long Way Down,” though, Hyslop takes his time, attempting to fully to quantify the darkness that so far has only been implied. Performing a duet with himself (with ease), he sings “It’s a long way down/When you fall in love, and out,” his emphasis on the finality of this love lost making it clear that though Echos may be a hopeful record, it certainly isn’t a happy one.
On “How You’ve Been” Echos gets key change that it needs. Hyslop leans into the outlaw, southern sound that up until now he’s only experimented with, and while the execution isn’t flawless, the songwriting is certainly compelling. As he sings “Gather round, children, it’s time that you heard/What the devil is after and how you’re concerned,” Hyslop gives his lyrics a sense of agelessness, harkening back to a time when the devil was real and he was out to get you. The track is rife with dark poetic language, which only makes Hyslop’s vocals stick out even more, and not in a good way. The disconnect between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it sanitizes the track, making it hard to fully commit to its attempt to position itself as a vagabond’s anthem.
Echos is a display of Hyslop’s competence as a songwriter and mastery as a musician, but it doesn’t do much to showcase his range. It’s clear that if Hyslop were to stray even a little bit from his polished vocals and put himself in more precarious situations from time to time, he could reach another level — that is not to say that Echos is without its high points. It may not be an instant classic, but the record deserves credit for its efficiency and technique. Hyslop’s songwriting is able to use subtlety to create layers of meaning without making any major missteps or doing anything that feels corny. Even at what could be described as its lowest points, Hyslop and Echos still remain well above the benchmark, never pausing to even flirt with mediocrity.