Unresolved’s nine songs are accompanied by rich and pleasurable arrangements, the instruments played with spot on skill, but the content of Stephen Winston’s songs will emotionally challenge you. It isn’t an exhausting experience, however, but an affirmative one instead. Winston turned to his art as a singer/songwriter to help process the loss of his parents, extensive personal reflection, and the complications surrounding the birth of three out of four grandchildren. With this sort of mandate he’s following, we can expect weighty lyrical material. It’s to his immense credit, however, that “Sun on the Boats”, the album opener, and every song thereafter never make these experiences claustrophobic for the listener. The piano in the sparsely arranged album opener is an important part of the album as a whole and works exceptionally well here in concert with Winston’s wide open voice. He sings with unabashed passion and whatever he may lack in technical skills as a vocalist is nullified by the heart of his performances.
Strings make their presence felt in that first song, as well, and prove to be an important component in the album’s sound. They are used again with memorable results during the album’s title track and one can easily hear how the core strengths of Winston’s songwriting lend themselves to the addition of strings. Instead of brushing up against the classical genre with decisions like this, Winston, instead, takes this more in the direction of high flown Americana, unafraid to make use of surprising voices, and striking upon a memorable synthesis. “Rainbow County” proves, as well, that he’s unafraid to rein that sound in and stick to the basics – the arrangement and playing are never boring, however, and the vocal melody excels again. His lyrics are exceptional across the board, but they gain a lot from his strong vocal melodies.
“Maybe It’s For James” goes further with strings than the title song dared. Winston himself regards this as a string ballad and it obviously is, merging the best elements of classically minded accompaniment and singer/songwriter styled balladry into an astonishingly effective whole. It even holds a few musical surprises for listeners; Winston works with some great collaborators on this album, but make no mistake that he is every bit as good of a musician as he is a lyricist. “For What Purpose” recalls “Rainbow County” in the way that Winston pulls back musically and concentrates on getting across a strong country music influence, but the lyric never pulls its punches. It’s an open admonishment to God, fate, what have you, about its reasoning behind life’s ledger of losses. It ranks as my favorite moment on the album.
“Talk on the Town” has a country influence as well thanks to some staccato fiddle riffing running through much of the tune and has a surprising amount of musical playfulness given the nature of the material. It’s a consistent theme for the album how wise Winston is about incorporating smooth, appealing arrangements with often thorny subject matter. “The Last Night” ends Unresolved in a lush, hypnotic way with its beautiful violin playing, but the real spine and grit in this song comes from Winston’s vocal. He pours every ounce of himself into this moment and the emotion reverberates well after the song ends. Few new releases I’ve heard in a long time left me as pleased as Unresolved and it’s well worth seeking out for anyone who loves thoughtful and entertaining adult music.