Singer-songwriter Caleb Stine's ambitious sixth album, Maybe God Is Lonely Too, houses Americana-tinged songs about death, falling in love, the prison-industrial complex, institutionalized racism, wanting a dog, and the empowering voice of God. There are echoes of Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt throughout, and it exists in the same tradition-parsing world as contemporary country affronts from Mount Moriah, or Will Oldham.
But it is ultimately a gritty, tricky record that answers to nobody. "With this one," Stine intones over coffee in Remington, where he lives, on a rainy Sunday-his voice patient and careful, yet intimidatingly blunt when he locates the right words-"I threw out any 'supposed to do.'"
Maybe God Is Lonely Too's creation, which took nearly three years, was intense and circuitous. The first two years were spent writing and revising, and the last year, recording at his Remington home. Initially, the plan was to do the album "front to back in one morning," waking up "right when the birds were starting to get active" and incorporating their gorgeous song into his songs. "Birds don't need any more inspiration to sing than the morning coming," Stine says. "So, if I could even approach the beauty and simplicity of what happens naturally, that would really be something."
What Stine had written demanded he go big picture though. Friends came over to beef up select tracks. He gleaned influence from grand statement-making artists (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Uta Barth, Albert Camus, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Carlos Reygadas, Willie Nelson, Mark Rothko, and Jiro Ono all come up in our conversation) and merged it with his appreciation of the more visceral vibrations of the natural world.
The birds kick off the album, return at the halfway point, and conclude the record, forcing listeners into lengthy moments of pause, creating a collage-like collection of songs that reflects life's cycle. Maybe God Is Lonely Too begins where it ends and ends where it begins. On a record that contains plenty of terse, brutal reminders of our mortality, musically imploring everybody to slow down and become more mindful is vital. "It's far more healthy to be talking about death than to not be talking about it," Stine points out, frustrated with misreadings of contemplative art as negative.
Maybe God Is Lonely Too, then, is a realistic record, not an overwhelming bleak one. "Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout the End of the World" refuses to indulge full-stop "we're screwed" cynicism, and even offers up a solution with Stine coyly admitting that he is "recklessly holding out hope." From there, he crafts surreal, societal-expectation-bucking imagery by way of a portrait of a new guru for these sticky times: "The magician, he's got gold and pearls/ He wears a diamond ring through his nose/ But all his consultants, beautiful girls/ Never mention he ain't wearing no clothes." Stine then Socratically admits the impossibility of what he just presented. "I know of course, this whole thing's an illusion," he sings, leveling with the naysayers, "But it's a vision with a powerful bite." Putting these words out there is more important than their "practical" use. The point here is standing up and "taking chances." Stine declares: "Unless you're leaving the skin in the game, or whatever sports people say, it doesn't have any weight."
Every moment of Maybe God Is Lonely Too is deeply considered, with a lot of skin in the game. Consider the fourth track, "Watcha Think Of Me Now," a slow-burn storytelling song about a man who picks off a Klansman, goes to jail for his radical heroics, and finds a sliver of hope by leading the entire jail in a Ray Charles sing-along. At a decisive moment in this song's narrative, percussion and bass crash down dramatically. It is the first time Maybe God Is Lonely Too incorporates anything other than Stine's voice and guitar. Artfully, he's been teasing a four song build-up that he'll investigate more fully on mortality-soaked tracks "Safe At the Savior's Side" and "The Long Path" later on.
The penultimate song, "Cello Suite No 1 Prelude," a plucky acoustic take on Bach, is "the sound of God talking back," Stine says, as if it were obvious, which, hey, if you're listening closely, it actually is. "If You Fly High Enough," the song before "Cello Suite," is an inspirational track featuring Stine asking God for a wife and if not, well, a dog at least. The song after "Cello Suite" is "Assateague," a hushed celebration of a sturdy romance he intends to take to the next level. God answered his wish, it would seem.
"I don't know if I can make another album like this, I really don't," Stine confesses. "I think I've pushed this so far that I think the next step would be either a novel or a film, or a philosophical treatise, you know what I mean?"
Caleb stine will debut songs from his new album april 12 at the tall trees concert series at Towson Unitarian universalist Church, in a show also featuring Letitia VanSant.