Justin Johnson’s ‘Never Coming Home’ evokes the true voice of one of St. Louis’ finest musicians

Great music can happen by accident. Justin Johnson’s “Never Coming Home” sits in that soulful category of right time, right place.

The album, released in 2019, marked the St. Louis native’s first solo adventure, following popular strips of time spent with Pretty Little Empire, The Fog Lights, and a number of other gigs. A heart full of tunes and melodies, Johnson’s main hook in the tightly-packaged yet let-it-loose feeling collection of tracks that can’t be shoved into a single genre of music.

You’ll feel The Heartless Bastards in Melinda Cooper’s stellar guitar work, which will have you going back to experience a song all over again. Corey Woodruff’s drum and percussion is the indelible supporting character in a Coen Brother flick, coming in and saying hello every couple minutes. Jenny Roques contributes to three different tracks here. Vince Corkery’s Oquendo secret weapon-type ability on the organ and bass carries songs such as “The Place We Were Before,” which syncs up with Cooper’s guitar riding high halfway in.

Johnson’s vocals bring it all home. Like a wicked hybrid of Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello with a slight Ray LaMontagne finish, you feel every single one of his words as if you were in the trunk on those road trips. Most of the songs blend the subconscious with the hard-earned life of the working class. What you think about as opposed to what is final and lies out ahead. In our chat a couple years ago-over some of St. Louis’ finest chicken at Gus’s in Maplewood-Johnson told me the album wasn’t planned.

“It wasn’t one that I was setting out to make. It had been about four years since I recorded anything,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you need that opportunity to find the time. Over the next few months, I had a grouping of songs. It went from this idea of doing this stripped down thing to something different. What started out as a couple songs changed.”

If there’s one thing that should be forced, it’s music. The construction of a song shouldn’t remind one of making a paper airplane; there has to be a singular moment when a plan comes together and the right people get involved. Corkery offered up his studio as a bunker location if Johnson ever had music that needed to get out of his head. Cooper was able to walk in and acquire x-ray vision into the singer-songwriter’s head, instantly giving what he wanted. When he wasn’t shooting Elvis-type headshots of Johnson, Woodruff brought it on drums.

Johnson’s desire for the music to be “sparse” was tromped by the appeal for different arrangements. He didn’t want to make this album, or particularly aim for it, but every song feels natural yet approachable. You can listen to the entire thing inside 17 minutes, with the knee-slapping opener, “Wake to My Demise,” clocking in at 49 seconds.

By the time the fateful yet smooth title track plays, your head will fall back and rest into the chair. The need to open a beer and reflect will seem like a great option, because the music here may be swift on its feet, but it makes you feel. “That’s How the Story Goes” is a surge of multiple sounds coming together as one, powered by Woodruff and Cooper, along with Johnson’s vocals.

“And it goes, on and on and on and on and on,” Johnson bellows towards the end of “Story,” before Cooper’s guitar solo just kicks you in another direction, like that ride the Scrambler at local carnivals. You get a little bit of everything here, but the identity is sure. This is Johnson’s voice, his ship and words. For the first time in his storied and resilient music career, an album is his own. Something he brought up, saw through, and gave to us.”

“I don’t want to have to make it up to you, I hope,” Johnson sings on track #4, which brings all the voices and instruments together in comforting unison.

“Turn it all Around” hits hardest for me. There’s something about this tune, that sounds like The Cure slowed down to a crawl, with Johnson and Devon Cahill going toe-to-toe with lyrics that carry sorrow, but offer a ray of hope. It’s here where the vocals stretch the farthest and the stories get a little darker, going for broke. If there’s a song that everybody should hear, and really listen to, it’s this one. Just read a few of the lyrics.

“And our feet have forgotten what it feels like on the ground, and our minds have forgotten how to act when we’re around. But if we both lay quietly, without a sound, maybe we can turn it all around. Maybe we can turn it all around.”

But right when you think the words are the only thrill here, Cooper’s guitar picks everything up, once again shaking the film’s label up in a good way. You couldn’t take one element away here, and get a similar sound. As much as I throw famous player names here as reference, these songs are unique to one spot. It’s confined to Corkery’s studio and a group of musicians playing their fucking asses off.

The album finishes with a sweet ode to Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town,” a track that Johnson makes his own. That’s basically what he did with his first solo album: Carve a voice into an authentic sound.

So, instead of spending $6.93 on a Starbucks latte with too much milk and 17 minutes in line waiting to greet its disappointment, spend that cash and time with “Never Coming Home,” a wonderful slice of Midwest living and soul-searching from one of its most esteemed players. This is one of those albums that will play well years from now. You’ll pull it out of the glove box or CD rack, and toss it into the player without missing a single first impression. Great music just hangs around that way.

Purchase the album here.

Photo Credit: Anastasia Swan-Vargas

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