If other local newspapers are to be believed, Josh Morningstar has already lived one hell of a life. Long before he even sniffed the age of 30 — or, for that matter, a guitar — the Funkstown native struggled with heroin addiction, eventually facing a life-or-death crossroads that changed the trajectory of not only his existence, but his career. Clean for a handful of years now, he’s managed to release a few records, sign to the Kansas City label Little Class Records, and land a job as a songwriter for a Nashville publishing house.
His hard luck is plastered all over “Songs For Fools With Broken Hearts,” his latest 10 song set that only occasionally stings as much as you might think it would. Armed with his acoustic guitar and a Hank Williams influence, Morningstar pulls no punches while talking about the absence of a love lost, be it through anger or sadness or reflection or fantasy. At a crisp 31 minutes, the collection amounts to the epitome of how valuable it is to make your point, do it quick, and move on.
“As Long As You Ain’t Coming Back,” the album’s best track, recalls “getting in a fight last night at White Castle,” which is far more clever than one might initially assume. Trotting along at a 6/8 time signature — and a lazy-waltz pace — the song is vulgar in all the right places, including a payoff line toward the end that isn’t allowed to be reprinted in a newspaper. If nothing else, it allows the singer to shine as a cutting humorist, too honest to be nice and too blunt to be forgiven.
It’s refreshing, considering how broken the guy seems elsewhere. “Crying Eyes Of Blue” is delicate and recalls his idol with a sparse electric guitar that pulls from the best of Nashville’s Music Row. Adding levity is how apprehensive Morningstar sounds with each verse, his voice cracking with hurt, almost too scared to wonder if he’s even allowed to ask his romantic counterpart not to leave. The inflections are subtle, but tastefully placed and darn-it if they aren’t affecting.
“I’ll Never Get Over You” kicks up the tempo and paired with a pop chorus, it feels more early-day Jason Mraz than it does present-day Brantley Gilbert. The move works, though, that hook sticking around for days due to the singer’s play on the phrases “getting over me” and “getting over you.” And if you need a marquee line to focus on, you probably won’t find a better one throughout the entire record than “I’ll wipe the tears away as you say you’re not in love with me anymore.”
Morningstar is at his most interesting, however, when he wants to have fun. Much like “As Long As You Ain’t Coming Back,” “Hank Williams Woman” walks the better side of the line separating cheeky and corny. Comparing the subject of his own heartbreak with whomever it was Williams wrote about when he was at his best, the Hagerstonian paints pictures just well enough to prove his point. Buying a cassette tape at a truck stop might be a time-honored tradition in some songwriting circles, but here, it proves that this guy’s in on his own joke, making him that much more endearing.
Speaking of endearing, “Let’s All Help The Cowboy Sing The Blues” caps the record with a certain amount of humility that’s both necessary and welcome. Self-aware and diffident, it’s almost impossible to not root for this guy to find a healthy life and everlasting love. Because if you can’t get on board with, “He does a little Shakespeare and he sings/Plays the mandolin and other things/He looks for love, beauty and IQ/And that’s what makes the cowboy sing the blues” … well, then that’s on you.
The only slip-ups come when he insists on being a one-man band. Word has it, he performs by playing kick and snare drums with his feet, and that leads to just a couple low-rent moments that he should have known better than to put on an album. “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone” is pretty good, but because that makeshift drum beat feels just a tad off-tempo, the tune appears more generic than it should. Plus, all things considered, “I’ll Never Get Over You” doesn’t even really need percussion to live.
Still, those choices are tiny missteps when you consider how poignant he can be with songs like “I Went Crazy For Awhile” and “Motel Madness.” The former is everything you want it to be, some lone-star guitar noodling piercing through with the warmth of a butter knife. The latter, aided by a sweetheart piano, is tired and personal, the two things that make Josh Morningstar such an interesting and listenable singer/songwriter.
Which, of course, are also the two things that make “Songs For Fools With Broken Hearts” worth your time. The sound of a hard-lived soul trying desperately to outrun his past, Morningstar should rest easy knowing the worst is most likely behind him. Because with the maturity and wit displayed here, it’s clear that he doesn’t necessarily need all that pain in order to churn out quality material. Yet even if he does, something about this set promises that he still has more to say about the good, the bad, and the real bad.
And when he says it, we better listen.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***