Review: Parker Millsap Explores the ‘Wilderness Within You’

Parker Millsap
Wilderness Within You
(Okrahoma Records/Thirty Tigers)
3 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Those who initially pigeonholed Purcell, Oklahoma’s Parker Millsap, as a blues-based, rootsy singer/songwriter have had to reconsider that narrative.

The title of Other Arrangements (2018), and its incorporation of amped-up guitars with propulsive and soulful rock, made it clear he wasn’t satisfied with sticking to the approach that honored him with an Album of the Year nomination from the Americana Music Honors & Awards for The Very Last Day in 2016.

He reinforced that eclecticism and experimental nature by dabbling with the electronic keyboards that dotted Be Here Instead in 2021 and continues the trend on this, his sixth release.

The sincere solo acoustic guitar and vocal that leads the album with “Greetings and Thanks (Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address),” a preview of the nature theme connecting the following dozen tracks, quickly yields to the full band, soulful pop of “What You Showed Me.” This easy grooving rocker highlights everything Millsap does well ie: singing an instantly memorable melody with rootsy passion. It’s a natural lead single that sounds even better blaring from a car stereo. Ditto for the discreet electronics underlying “So Far Apart,” a pandemic-inspired pop gem that partially obscures its sentiments of feeling a need to connect after lockdowns (I need a new lens/I’m losing perspective) with a bubbly air that gradually turns dark as the song progresses.

Fans first attracted to Millsap’s bluesy tendencies will appreciate the swaying “Front Porchin,’” which is as cozy and folksy as its title implies. He taps into McCartney’s acoustic “Mother Nature’s Son” vibe with tapes of insects buzzing accompanying the stark “Finding Out,” complete with an unexpected F-bomb.

But the vibe turns more ominous on the throbbing keyboard-enriched “Half a World Away” as he almost spits out, I’m living in the mouth / Of the big machine/It sucks the spirit out / It sells me shiny things with pent up anger and grimy, feed-backed guitar. It’s out of context with anything that appeared before. That segues into the disc’s most disconcerting moment, the dreary and tedious solo piano “If We Would Let It,” which slams the brakes on much of the momentum he has built so far. Backed by tapes of imposing thunder, this seems like it’s another artist from a different album.

Next is arguably the set’s most affecting moment. The Gillian Welch enhanced title track finds the twosome dueting on lines such as There’s a story still unfolding, and I wish it always will, accompanied by subtle fiddle and Parker’s easy-plucked guitar. The song is beautiful, and poignant and resets the tone from the distressing tunes preceding it.

Millsap’s predilection to balance his organic impulses with occasional gloomier edges, both lyrically and musically, is encouraging. But the clumsy juggling of those styles on this generally impressive collection doesn’t deliver a coherent album.    

Photo by Melissa Madison Fuller / Big Hassle

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