(Emote Records, CD)
At every stage of his development, Gregory Douglass has displayed growth in specific areas of his craft. 2005’s Stark presented a young songwriter exploring the power of subtlety. The record, as its name implies, is a darker, moodier affair than what many of his fans have likely come to expect since — especially those turned on to his music via frequent rotation on MTV’s gay-friendly offshoot, Logo. His 2006 follow-up Up & Away found Douglass emerging from his malaise to deliver a gracefully refined effort, relying on his immense songwriting capabilities to capture his emotions, instead of being captured by them. In many ways the best of both worlds, his latest effort, Battler, seems a logical next step in a fascinating evolution.
Longtime fans will delight in Douglass’ trademark delivery, that divinely curious combination of Rufus Wainwright and Patti Griffin — and maybe Josh Groban. New friends may marvel at the songwriter’s gift for unflinching invention within the constructs of pop songcraft: While the album’s 12 tracks are undeniably catchy, you’d be hard pressed to find a standard verse-chorus assemblage anywhere within them.
From dissonant opener “Broken Through” — an apt title given that Douglass, disillusioned with the state of the music industry, nearly never made this album — through songs such as “Madeline” and “Cathedrals,” he sings as if possessed. “Cathedrals” is his first foray into addressing, as he puts it, “gay controversy.” The accompanying video features Douglass dressed as a priest and making out with his longtime partner and manager, Glen Nadeau. In a word, yikes. But the tune is stirringly sinister.
Douglass lined up some serious local star power for the recording. Righteous Babe Anaïs Mitchell drops by on a gorgeous acoustic number, “Sadly.” Vermont’s reigning pop-rock diva Grace Potter checks in on the album’s final track, “Ordinary Man.” Both guest singers show commendable restraint and taste in their backup roles. Glitz and glamour aside, it’s a nice reminder that, more than anything, both are simply remarkable vocalists.
In terms of production, Battler might represent Douglass’ cleanest effort to date, which is saying something given the immaculate nature of his previous works. Longtime friend and producer Syd deserves the credit here. Even Douglass’ occasional flirtations with Autotune seem artistic choices, rather than T-Pain-esque cover makeup. Note: Anyone who summarily dismisses Autotune should listen to Bon Iver’s “Woods,” like, immediately. As with reverb or double-voicing before it, in the right hands Autotune is merely another weapon in a producer’s arsenal.
Given Douglass’ previously prolific, frequent output, it seems we’ve been waiting ages for this seventh album, even though it’s only been a couple of years. But Battler is worth the wait — perceived or otherwise — and serves as a potent reminder that Gregory Douglass is still one of the state’s most engaging songwriters.
Battler hits shelves, electronic and traditional, on March 3. Douglass celebrates a tad earlier with a Higher Ground Showcase Lounge release party on Thursday, February 26.