Neal Francis’ latest album, In Plain Sight, sounds haunted with the wailings of the slide guitar and dreamlike melodies. The nine-track album dropped on November 5, and Francis revealed that this latest record has been described as “station wagon rock.” As the more relatable version of yacht rock that bounces with chords of nostalgia, In Plain Sight is a record worth diving into.
“The first song I recorded was ‘In Plain Sight,’ and then that got the door open to all these other ideas,” Francis tells American Songwriter. Despite not making it onto the record in song form, “In Plain Sight” morphed into the scaffolding for Francis’ second album.
“BNYLV” (pronounced bunny love), was one such song that emerged after the title track jumpstarted Francis’ creative process. The track centers around sorrowful lyrics like We had a good thing in the past / Why can’t good things last forever / True love never lasts / Why can’t this love last forever. The instrumentals behind the melancholy mood, however, offer a glimpse of hope with upbeat swirls of ’70s funk. Francis fondly recalls that the track grew from an early morning writing session. “I just remember being up all night, recording that, putting it together, and being really proud of it,” Francis says.
Outside of “BNYLV,” the theme of battling addiction is present in songs like “Alameda Apartments,” and allusions to Greek mythology exist in “Prometheus.” Synth and guitar-heavy, “Prometheus,” was a song born out of the pandemic. Francis and drummer Colin O’Brien related to the story of the mythological Titan. Prometheus was sentenced to a cyclical punishment after stealing from the Greek gods. More specifically, the two artists felt that Prometheus’ punishment embodied the despair and isolation felt during the crises of the pandemic.
“Can’t Stop The Rain” exists in opposition to “Prometheus” with a more optimistic flair. The legendary Derek Trucks is also featured on this glorious track. “Derek liked the song and offered to blow over it. So we sent him a completed mix with vocals, and he sent us four takes a couple of days later. The first take was the one we ended up using, I didn’t really listen to the other ones, the first take was just so perfect,” Francis explains. “He’s a really special individual, and I’m really honored that he performed on the track.”
Another track on the record, “Sentimental Garbage,” which was the original title track, expresses Francis’ cathartic escape to music. “I was feeling really low about myself and wanted to be explicit about some of the things I didn’t like about myself. So [I was] just talking about vanity and narcissism,” Francis says. “I thought that it was like a cathartic way to progress with those perceived flaws.”
Overall, the album is an innovative romp through Francis’ musical influences and creativity. One specific influence for the album was the setting in which Francis created the album. Francis spent about a year living in a parsonage attached to the church in Chicago called St. Peter’s UCC.
“Our drummer Colin also ended up living there,” Francis explains. “We had a three-bedroom house attached to the church, and there was a passageway which connected the basement of our living space to the rest of the facility.
“I had access to the organ [and] choir rehearsal room 24 hours a day, which is just super important for my growth overall as a musician,” Francis continues. “When our tour got canceled, it was just an amazing place to be stuck because of all the space we were afforded and also the things in that building that I could dedicate my time to.”
Francis moved into the church after a breakup and ended up staying until his record was almost entirely complete. The singer/songwriter soaked up the church’s stunning architecture, built in the English Gothic style, and was moved by the building’s ornate roofing and intricate stained glass windows. “The luxurious thing about this album was that I had days upon days and weeks to explore these ideas and beat my head against the wall—and really get some deep ideas,” Francis states.
Upon completion, Francis dedicated In Plain Sight to Lil, the de facto leader of the St. Peter’s congregation who allowed him to become the church’s resident artist. “I’m really lucky to have great people around me,” Francis says.
Altogether, In Plain Sight emerged from the spacious halls of a Chicago church and from the soul of an artist who listened to his creative instincts. The result is a bombastic set of songs unlike any other.
Photo by Liina Raud / ato records