(OutTake Records , CD)
In reviews of Justin Levinson’s first two albums, 1175 Boylston (2006) and Bury Your Love (2007), two separate Seven Days scribes (freelancer Brian Murphy and this writer) came to nearly identical conclusions regarding the Vergennes-born, Berklee-trained songwriter’s music. Namely, that while he possesses an abundance of technical ability and polish, his songwriting lacks — to paraphrase both writers — cojones. With his latest effort, Predetermined Fate, Levinson presumably sets out to prove us both wrong. So, is the third time the charm, or is Levinson’s music-crit fate predet … ahem. Too cute?
The answer is a little bit of both. Though he settles into a distinctly more alt-country-styled groove than on his previous works, Levinson’s knack for letter-perfect pop hooks remains intact. And while he’s still prone to the occasional lyrical clunker, he exhibits a crafty charm sorely missing in his previous works.
This is not to say Levinson has abandoned his proclivity for heart-on-sleeve wistful-cisms. On the contrary, he embraces them. “Everything Has Always Been About You” sets the lovelorn troubadour against a driving, twangy backdrop. The effect is catchy and familiar, but pleasantly so. Levinson’s thin, reedy voice seems better suited to this Golden Smog-esque aesthetic than the piano-driven power pop of earlier efforts. Further, he delivers his plaintive lyrics with a casual intensity that starkly contrasts with his previously overwrought but lazily uninspiring fare.
“Bandaid on a Bulletwound” is next and showcases Levinson’s finest asset: composition. What begins as a slackerly, fiddle-led romp evolves into a boisterous, steel-driven sing-along at the chorus. And the dynamic shifts into and out of the bridge are something special.
“Hopelessness” finds Levinson back behind the keys and comes perilously close to revisiting the weightless folly of his earlier efforts. But it never really does. Instead, Levinson fully commits, as if to say, “This song is gonna be catchy as all hell, a little schmaltzy, even. And you’re gonna want to hate it. But you’re gonna fuckin’ love it and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I’ll be damned if he isn’t right. I can’t even call it a guilty pleasure. It is quite simply a perfectly crafted pop nugget.
To be sure, the disc is not without its questionable moments. But for every predictable throwaway like “Losing You to Tennessee,” there’s a bounty of genuinely inspired tracks to be had, suggesting that Levinson has finally come into his own.