A Mellower, More Peaceful Paul Thorn Holds Sway on ‘Never Too Late to Call’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Never Too Late to Call This is a far cry from the Paul Thorn of Mission Temple Fireworks Stand but roots music buffs have long known that Thorn is a versatile songwriter, equally capable of empathetic themes as he is of rebellious ones. Here we find Thorn in a reflective, personal, and mostly grateful mode. Gone are the songs about short-term love affairs and mostly gone is the hard-driving punch that marked much of his early material. The son of a preacher and nephew of a once-pimp, a professional boxer with a winning record, an artist who made an album with The Blind Boys of Alabama – Thorn has plenty to draw from. Known for his sharp wit and ability to connect instantly with his audience, Thorn has built a strong catalog and can call on the best as he does here, tapping producer and engineer, the Grammy winning Matt Ross-Spang, who recorded at his usual site, Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis.

The album begins with “Two Tears of Joy,” mostly a gently acoustic tune, calling out what he’s grateful for, mostly simple things, from fishing to the people he’s met.  On the surface it may seem sappy or corny, descriptors we do not associate with Thorn, and surely, he carries it off authentically. The title track is about his late sister Deborah who passed in 2018. He often called her from the road at absurdly late hours, but she was always there to talk.  There is also a duet with his wife, Heather, singing on record for the first time in the standout “Breaking Up For Good Again,” chronicling the bumps and glees of marriage, rendered again in a finger-picking acoustic mode, allowing the harmonies to come through beautifully.

Interspersed between that one and the title track is the kind of customary stomping Paul Thorn groove we are used to in “Sapolo,” a great example of how Thorn puts certain memories or images to music.  It is based on a YouTube video of James Brown who was just released from prison for assaulting his wife. He was on a local news show being interviewed by the typical musically uninformed news anchor who kept asking him how it felt to be getting out of jail. He was preparing to do a show in San Paulo, Brazil and kept pronouncing the city as if it were one word. Hence the title. 

“What Could I Do” is another acoustic slow burner, pondering the difficulty in letting go of old memories and relationships. It leads to the single, “Here We Go,” also about his late sister Deborah but specifically her twin sister Charlotte, a devout Christian, who firmly believes she will be reunited with her sister on “the other side.” “Apple Pie Moonshine” is also about a relationship, on the surface one may think it is about a female but instead it is about Thorn’s relationship with alcohol, one he recently ended as expressed in the line “Damn you.” “Sapphire Dream” though does involve an ongoing close relationship. It’s co-written with his daughter who sings harmonies with her dad on a simple song about love gone wrong.  

We return to the Thorn groove in “You Mess Around & Get a Buzz,” a cautionary tale about using too many substances. “Goodbye Is the Last Word” is a gentle interlude of sorts between another groover in “Holy Hottie Toddy.” The former is also cautionary in nature, essentially saying stay away from toxic people. The latter is based on seeing his daughter’s band perform in front of a bunch of drunken, rowdy boys at Ole Miss who kept yelling “Hottie Toddy.”  So, he added a word to make this the kind of crowd-pleasing, singalong at shows to create a ‘let’s all love one another” vibe.  Thorn reminds us at the end that he still has those infectious grooves that made so many fall in love with his music in the first place. There’s just not as much of those here, replaced with softer tones and his usual well-crafted lyrics.

Yes, this is a different and by far the most personal, and heartfelt record Thorn has made. At this point in his career, he has earned the right to do so.

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