If finding common ground sounds like an ambitious prospect in these profoundly polarized times, that’s because, quite frankly, it is. But with his extraordinary new album, The United State, Wells has managed to transcend politics and race and religion and tap into something far deeper, something infinitely more primal and timeless. Recorded with acclaimed producer Duane Lundy (Ringo Starr, Sturgill Simpson’s Sunday Valley, Joe Pug), the collection explores our innate humanity and everything that comes with it: the joy, the sorrow, the ecstasy, the pain, the hope, the fear. Wells’ songs speak to the universal truths that bind us, empathetically leaping between perspectives as they reckon with personal growth and existential quandaries. The arrangements here are rich and ethereal to match, balancing lush sonic landscapes with stark acoustic meditations. The result is a subtly revelatory record, a gripping, cinematic album full of small moments and sharp insights that add up to nothing short of life itself. “Ultimately, this album’s about unity,” says Wells. “It’s about the common thread that connects us all.” After spending his childhood in Blanchard, LA, Wells moved with his family to Cynthiana, Kentucky as a youngster. Growing up in the rural South, he rebelled against the commercial country music that surrounded him, instead preferring the trippy psychedelia of Pink Floyd and the brash energy of Guns N’ Roses. After an aimless couple of years trying to put a band together in rural Kentucky, he moved to Lexington, and immediately launched the cult favorite Southern rock band Fifth on the Floor. The group released a couple of well-received independent records before teaming up with Shooter Jennings on their breakout third album, 2013’s Ashes & Angels, which debuted on the Billboard Country charts. While the record earned raves and helped land the band dates with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Blackberry Smoke, it would prove to be the group’s last, and following a pair of hometown farewell shows, the four-piece split for good. “When that band broke up, it kicked me in the teeth. We’d spent years clawing upward, and suddenly there was no wind, no sails,” says Wells. “That had been my dream since I was a teenager, and all of my eggs were in that basket. There was no backup plan.”
With the rug suddenly pulled out from under him, Wells found himself in freefall. Rather than succumb to the disappointment, though, he decided to write his way through the heartache, emerging stronger and more creatively invigorated on the other side with his solo debut, Dawn in the Distance. The record (and its subsequent touring) prompted the best reviews of Wells’ career, with Rolling Stone hailing his “gift for melody” and Saving Country Music praising his “stunning insight and honesty.” The album reached #3 on Amazon’s Alt-Country/Americana chart, and songs from the collection racked up more than a million streams on Spotify alone.
When it came time to work on a follow-up, Wells decided to flip his entire writing process on its head. Instead of penning whatever music just happened to come to mind, he crafted an entire architecture and sequence for the record in advance, following it like a road map as he wrote about what it meant to be human, to be caring, to love yourself and your fellow man, flaws and all. “Tribalism is the name of the game at this point,” says Wells. “‘Divided’ is a cliche. But if you zoom out, we all bleed the same, we all laugh the same, we all cry the same. There’s this common path that all of our lives follow: birth, being a dumbass kid, thinking you’re falling in love, actually falling in love, starting a family. Worrying about paying the bills, death, whatever comes next.” Writing the album was a slower and more deliberate process than Wells had ever experienced, and the recording sessions unfolded in a similarly methodical fashion. After brothers Daxx (Cheap Trick) and Miles Nielsen (Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts) laid down rhythm tracks in Rockford, IL, Wells and Lundy cut vocals and guitars in Lexington with Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson, Drivin’ N Cryin’) and Alex Muñoz (Margo Price, Nikki Lane). GRAMMY-nominated producer/engineer/multi-
That communal spirit is the heart and soul of The United State which nods to our shared humanity with a stark, black and white portrait of an elderly woman on the cover, a lifetime of struggle and resilience and heartbreak and love etched in the lines on her face. After opening with an ethereal instrumental movement that radiates all the warmth and safety of the womb, the collection begins in earnest with “The Screaming Song,” a bittersweet meditation on the wonder and the terror that accompanies our entrance into this world. “It won’t be the last time I am on my own,” Wells sings in his rich, honeyed drawl, at once capturing both the infinite beauty and unfathomable sadness that awaits each of us at birth. The record works its way through life chronologically, as a series of snapshots of formative moments from a variety of narrators connected by their shared humanity. “No Time For A Broken Heart” recalls the playful country funk of The Band’s “Cripple Creek” as it celebrates the freedom of youth, while the tender “Some Distance From It All” taps into the eternal teenage quest for independence and identity, and the boisterous “Never Better” learns the difference between lust and love the hard way. As exuberant as the record begins, there’s a distinct maturing on the album’s second half, which finds adolescence giving way to adulthood. The soulful “After The Fall” and R&B-tinged “It’ll All Work Out” revel in the power of grown-up love, while the breezy “Temporary Blue” and driving “Walls Fall Down” reflect on the growth and responsibility that come with raising a family of your own, and the hypnotic “Ruby” and dreamy “The Bridge” approach death with a calm acceptance, passing peacefully from this life to the next. “On my own, on my own, ’til I see you again, I am on my own,” Wells sings, bringing the whole journey full circle. “Birth and death, they’re just transitions,” he muses. “There’s comfort there.”
We may never truly understand what happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil. Hell, we may never truly understand what happens while we’re here. But with The United State Justin Wells has crafted an essential soundtrack to the journey.