Filled with the energy of America’s great cities and the contemplative nature of its seemingly endless Midwest Plains, Justin Sullivan’s – a.k.a. Night Shop – new album, ‘Forever Night’, is like a great road trip filled with memories and unsuspecting revelations.
Some of the great songwriters may never have been heard if they had decided to remain part of a backing band. For instance, there would be no The War on Drugs if Adam Granduciel stayed as the lead guitarist for Kurt Vile’s The Violators. Father John Misty would never have existed if Joshua Tillman opted to remain as Fleet Foxes’ drummer. Could one imagine what ’80s pop music and ’90s Disney films would be like if Phil Collins never emerged from behind the drum kit? The world would be a much emptier place without their songs and stories. And the same could be said for Justin Sullivan.
For the majority of Sullivan’s career, he’s been the drummer for Kevin Morby’s outfit The Babies and later with the supporting bands for Waxahatchee, Hand Habits, and Morby (the solo artist). Years of touring, however, wore on Sullivan, and he almost retired in 2017. He was physically and mentally spent, and his passion became unbearable work. Sullivan, though, had plenty of stories to share about life on the road, the people he met and left behind, and, more importantly, how he persevered. Eventually, he set aside his drumsticks and picked up the electric guitar, and Night Shop was born.
Sullivan’s moniker is fitting given much of his waking professional life was during the dark hours of the day, playing gigs and traversing between cities. The lights he saw were from oncoming vehicles, traffic lights, and the signs that illuminated alongside highways and on top of stores. In this environment of constant travel, one’s best friends are the quietness of the night and the accompany sense of isolation. Whether coincidentally or not, being away from the business allowed Sullivan to release his long-conceived and patiently-crafted new album, Forever Night.
The LP is like a long road trip across the USA. It is filled with the energy of America’s great cities and the seemingly endless landscapes of the Midwest Plains, which are made for contemplation. Like every great adventure, excitement is in the air at the very beginning, and this is reflected in the old-school, toe-tapping, spry rocker, “Forever Night”. The track is the caffeine that provides the kick-start to the day, as bouncing rhythms and grumbling guitar riffs recall the bar-room rock ‘n roll of the early ’80s. Sullivan, too, wants to reclaim the feeling of his younger days when there was nothing better than a crowded room of music lovers.
“I want to go where the music is loud
That’s where I belong
I want to lose myself in a crowd
And inside a song
I don’t want to learn to stop trying
I don’t want to stop trying to learn.
Oh, let me burn”
The uplifting rockabilly of “Slow Dancing at the Wax Museum” follows. Made for kicking up the heels and a good time in any environment (and not just the Smithsonian), Sullivan once again seeks to capture long, lost time. From singing about the partner he ignored to the life he once knew, he quickly realizes that these moments are history, and they can only be revisited in the archives that sit in his mind. Sullivan continues the upbeat energy on “Let Me Let It Go”, which tickles with the panache of Elvis Presley and the craftiness of a young Jerry Lee Lewis. Even a bit of a young Johnny Cash pops in the guitar work and Sullivan’s observational songwriting style. As the grizzled guitars crosses with the hand clap-inducing rhythms, Sullivan explores the many different ways love can be expressed, and, in turn, how it can benefit and divide. His songwriting is brilliant.
“Jesus came back, like the prodigal son.
He said ‘Hold up, wait up, what’s going on? I never said nothing like that… ‘but they weren’t convinced.
And he said ‘I’ll be right back,’ we saw him cutting across the lawn.
Then we ain’t seen him since.
Outside the first circle are the ones who didn’t try.
The first circle is where I’ve set my sights.
Talking to the poets, telling them your name.
They’ll laugh and say that I’ll never be the same.
They’ll say ‘let’s have a toast to the one above! L-U-V we’re only talking about love.’”
Forever Night slows down in the middle part, as Sullivan’s songwriting turns more confessional. With an assist from Meg Duffy (a.k.a. Hand Habits) on the slow, country burner, “Just to Get Home”, Sullivan longs to reconnect with family. The song is an apology as well as one about second chances. “Let’s not be frightened / And let’s not be scared / Look deep me inside I guess we’re meant to be shared / And that means we still get to dance”, he emotionally sings.
He continues the story on the intimate and beautifully orchestrated Americana number, “Midnight”. This time, however, his focus is on the one he left behind. His aim is not to “win or lose” but to turn the page on their story. They do this on “For a While”. With Jess Williamson on backing vocals, Sullivan serenades with a delicate slow romp through ’80s rock. Feathery percussion and lithe rhythms guide the song’s graceful melody. “For a while, it felt like we belonged / In each other’s arms. Forever more”, Sullivan sings at the start, setting the stage for what should be a remarkable love story. The relationship, however, is on the rocks. But instead of choosing to reflect on the pain, they try to focus on the memories of what made their love one for the ages.
“Now I’m like Ulysses when night falls. One last time, I plot the course.
Someone’s saying ‘lights out’ in the halls.
‘Someones’ in our rooms we don’t know at all.
But I’ll choose to remember more: you dancing around the kitchen floor and the look on my face, like a child.
That was our home for a while.”
Returning to the solitary days on the road, Sullivan searches for salvation on the Kevin Morby-esque ballad, “Let Me Begin”. Sullivan’s songwriting is stellar, littered with vignettes that describe his fears, anxieties, and hopes. “Well the Garden State Parkway is filled with creeps / Just get me out of here”, he beckons at the beginning. When he can steal some sleep, his dreams are filled with the end of his days.
“And the grand inquisitor came to be me and said,
‘Why have your freedom when it could bring you hell?’
So I kissed him goodbye, but I ain’t Jesus Christ
I’m just looking for some lovin’ in this life”
As Sullivan’s life meanders across many highways and avenues and through plenty of states and cities, like the silky “Pensacola, Florida” that is made for a low-key bar, his final destination is “At the Opera”. For one last time, Sullivan dials up the energy in the music and his vocals. He sounds like a man at peace, not only because the long journey is about to draw to a conclusion but he understands that his problems pale in comparison to others. With an approach that is reminiscent of Joy Division in their final days, Sullivan shares the images that he’s seen all these years – people living in squalor and fear, the outbreak of war and conflict, and internal strife that eats away at each person. But one thing keeps him going forward – the love of others. Love won’t just tear us apart but hold us together. Or at least it’s the one thing that has kept Sullivan going.
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