Review Summary: Eyes locked, you pull me to the edge
A concept album is a risky endeavor by nature. Writing an entertaining and challenging record that remains consistent in quality is difficult enough; unifying every song and lyric with memorable instrumental motifs and a compelling narrative can seem next to impossible from the outset. Composing a concept album requires a hearty amount of creative bravery, and is a task undertaken only by musicians who are unshakably confident in their ability. Emerging from the musical hotbed of Nashville, Tennessee, John Louis Schwallie is one of those musicians, betting on himself with poise and establishing his own label with friend and co-producer Benjamin Mariano to release his debut effort. “I’ll Be Fine” is a solid concept album with a fascinating backstory, and its strongest moments point toward nothing but an encouraging future for these two and their label, Despicable Records.
“I’ll Be Fine” is far from the first concept album detailing the dissolution of a relationship, but where most artists prefer to begin their story in the wreckage, Louis drops his audience in media res, painting a portrait of a collapsing man desperately attempting to breathe life into something that just keeps slipping through his fingers. This anguish is often coupled with naive hope and is reflected beautifully in Louis’s vocal performance. His voice is the single most important factor of this album’s success; it’s strong, resilient, and consistently impressive. Both his lower and higher registers are emotionally evocative, and his stamina is praiseworthy. His high notes and belting on tracks like “Without You” and “Everything I Need” will grab the attention of any listener, while his rawer takes on “The South” and “Spent” cut straight to the heart. These tracks detail a slow descent into heartbreak, as well as an unwillingness to dive headfirst into grief and recovery, motivated by the implausible hope that the damage will somehow come undone. The album’s flow is wonderfully uninterrupted, with transitions between tracks being both seamless and satisfying. This allows Louis’s storytelling to shine even brighter and for the listener to become even further engrossed in the narrative.
Unfortunately, the strongest components of the narrative stem from the story itself, rather than the manner in which it’s being told. According to Louis’s Spotify bio, “I’ll Be Fine” was written during his time as a student at the Contemporary Music Center, he was “tasked to write a new song every other week, in which he reflected on his tumultuous long-distance relationship in real time”. While many tracks on the record sound more fleshed out and painstakingly composed, the rushed nature of the songwriting alluded to by this quote is apparent in many instances. Late album deep cut “Your Eyes Were Dry” is surely the record’s low point, an acoustic number that’s more akin to a big solo piece from a musical than an acoustic emo crowd pleaser. This is the only moment on the tracklist where it doesn’t actually feel as though I’m listening to Louis himself, but rather a performance. The album contains fourteen tracks, four of which are interludes. With the exception of prelude “April 3rd”, which is a marvelous setup for true opener “Everything I Need”, these interludes do little to differentiate themselves from one another, and are too barebones instrumentally to captivate. The drums are quite obviously programmed, which isn’t a bad thing by any means; however, they sound a bit too perfect at times, which is at odds with the raw and vulnerable nature of the songwriting. It’s a distracting sensation to be listening intently to songs like “Everything I Need” or “Smoke” where Louis is baring his soul, only to pause for a robotic and heavily quantized drum fill.
While “I’ll Be Fine” stumbles on occasion, the high points of the record are truly special and make experiencing the album well worth a potential listener’s time. Highlights such as “For Now” and “Without You” combine Louis’s vocal prowess and ear for hooks with some sneaky and complex theory, with “For Now” containing one of the cleverest key changes I’ve heard in a long time. Elsewhere, “Spent” succeeds where “Your Eyes Were Dry” failed, building to an emotionally impactful crescendo, and other cuts like “Worth It” or “Ready to Go” entertain with endless energy. “The South” has become the album’s most popular track on streaming platforms, and it’s not difficult to understand why; it’s an intricately composed and stirring song, filled to the brim with incisive lyrics, gorgeous vocal harmony, and deft time shifts. It may not be my personal favorite track the album has to offer (that honor goes to “For Now”), but the unforgettable climax of “The South” is absolutely the moment that represents it the best.
“I’ll Be Fine” is nothing but promising for a first release. It contains one major misstep, but is consistent in quality otherwise and shows occasional flashes of brilliance and emotional power. Despicable Records certainly has a bright future ahead of them, and this writer looks forward to what their creative team will produce in the near future.