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Christian Lee Hutson - Beginners Music Album Reviews

With the help of Conor Oberst, Phoebe Bridgers, and others, this career collaborator steps into the spotlight with a stunningly empathetic study of human frailties. 

We’ll begin with the strangest song on the record: “Get the Old Band Back Together,” a jocular sing-a-long, replete with harmonica and hand claps, on a record otherwise composed of finger-picked dirges. “Let’s get the old band back together again!” Hutson sings, fronting a gleeful chorus. “Let’s get in the room and let the magic happen!” Though something very special does happen on this album, credit is due not to magic, but to Hutson’s extraordinarily talented ensemble. That’s Conor Oberst you hear on that harmonica, and Lucy Dacus and Meg Duffy in the mix, and Phoebe Bridgers at the boards. With friends like these, who needs sorcery?
Christian Lee Hutson is presently best known for his collaborations with Bridgers, having co-written songs on both boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. Traces of his career prior to their link-up are scarce. He recorded two solo albums in the early 2010s, neither of which appears to be currently available on streaming services. In the absence of any earlier trajectory to trace, a few key questions—who this guy is, where the hell he came from, how he got so goddamn good at this—will have to go unanswered. Hutson does not seek to reinvent the wheel on “Beginners.” He offers nothing you’ve not heard before. Even his voice sounds familiar on first listen, a dead ringer in many places for the delicate timbre of Paul Simon. But Hutson’s particular variation on finger-picked folk is as refined and masterfully crafted as you’ll find anywhere.
What distinguishes Beginners from any number of other, lesser albums are Hutson’s unflinching probes into human fallibility. On opener “Atheist,” Hutson shrugs at a Sunday School hymn: “It went like, ‘Angels watching over us, all our little lives’/I don’t know if I buy it, but it does sound kinda nice.” This moment sets the stage for a record which turns away from grand metaphysical questions and toward mundane manmade struggle. Whether he’s singing about outpatient rehabilitation (“Seven Lakes”), a hostile high school (“Northsiders”), or the deterioration of an intimate relationship (every other track, just about), Hutson’s focus remains the ways in which human beings can’t help but hurt one another.

He’s even brave enough to cast himself as the scoundrel on a few tracks. On “Unforgivable,” when he dismisses a partner with, “I just can’t fucking do it anymore,” he slows and stresses the cruelest word, earning it like a television writer allotted only one per season. His delivery of the downright-malevolent “Keep You Down” is just as indelible. When he winces on the chorus’s high harmonies, it’s as though he feels the very pain his narrator inflicts. There is something refreshing in seeing a songwriter so mindful of his capacity for betrayal, and so effortfully working to fix the damage he’s done. “Lose This Number” is especially moving, the haughty fuck-off of its title phrase becoming a yearning plea for connection as he fondly reminisces with someone he once loved. “You don’t have to forgive me,” he sings. “Hell, you probably shouldn’t.”

Hutson is at his very best when he’s not showing off. He occasionally rivals Hemingway for the amount of sheer devastation he can pack into six words. On “Talk,” taking a neglectful parent to task, he sings, “I was raised over the phone”—a damning indictment, no pretty poetry necessary. He stumbles only when he doesn’t give these moments room to breathe, as with the shocking climax of “Northsiders,” a gut-punch too quickly swallowed up by the song’s breezy schoolyard rhyme scheme. Some of his darlings, too, would be better off killed. “It’s like I was born on the back of a bullet/With your name written on it” is a lovely lyric, but out of place in the intimate late-night conversation of “Lose This Number.” This sort of adornment only distracts from the great strength of his simple language and imagery.

Hutson’s musical style finds a perfect complement in Bridgers’ subtle production. She carefully seasons Hutson’s acoustic finger-picking with other instrumental layers—a tart keyboard line on “Twin Soul,” a crisp cymbal on “Lose This Number,” and buttery strings throughout—to bring out the flavor of his playing, but never overwhelm its delicacy. Another collaborator, Nathaniel Walcott of Bright Eyes, is responsible for the marvel of Beginners’ string arrangements. This record was made with friends in the room, and those friends were invariably extraordinarily talented. The starry group of back-up singers from “Get the Old Band Back Together” make a welcome return on the final number, “Single For The Summer.” There, they all repeat a single line—“It’s gonna happen any day now”—with an air of rebellious optimism and so much conviction you can’t help but believe them. We may not be guarded by angels, but human beings can make for a pretty fine choir in a pinch.



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