On his new album “Earthtones,” Toronto musician Afie Jurvanen has fully embraced his soft rock roots, crafting a tight, spacious album that finds the musician at his most expressive, and focused, in his career. The album builds its sound off of the musician’s experiments in blue-eyed soul and soft rock, with Jurvanen filtering his music through waves of sounds from the past, from Doobie Brothers grooves to lo-fi funk, finding his own voice in the process.
The first song on the album, “Alone,” establishes a conversational tone that effectively plays against the infectious groove of the music. For the recording of “Earthtones,” Jurvanen enlisted Pino Palladino and James Gadson, the neo-soul pioneers that helped D’Angelo achieve his groundbreaking sound on Black Messiah, an album that feels somewhat alien in its otherworldly harmonies and complicated rhythms. With “Earthtones,” Jurvanen achieves his own unique sound by keeping it simple, letting the music breathe around tight guitar licks and well-crafted harmonies.
“Alone” works off a tension between the tight instrumentals and Jurvanen’s relaxed singing style. The female harmonies behind him add an idiosyncratic, almost dreamlike feel to the songs, seeming to stem from the kind of feel-good backing parts that artists like Eric Clapton employed in the mid-90s to build an adult contemporary R&B sound that dominated the airwaves. Although the sounds here aren’t quite as silky smooth, I feel the effect here is the same, the vocals working as a blanket of warmth and emotion for the singer to work off of. Jurvanen pulls this off expertly, and the mix sounds spot on as he comes to the song’s conclusion: “Men and women equal, but we’re not the same.”
Throughout “Earthtones,” it sounds like Jurvanen is geeking out on contemporary R&B, mixing it all up on his palette with a touch of shameless soft rock and yacht rock groove. Yet what makes “Earthtones” so good is that Jurvanen practices quite a bit of reserve on the arrangement of each song. Although his music flirts with indulgence, it draws a quiet power from its simplicity, which maximizes the power of its parts, whether that be juicy, sharp-as-a-knife guitar lines or Jurvanen’s lovelorn, terrifyingly honest lyrics.
In the vein of honesty that Jurvanen finds on the album, he also excavates a few oddballs. One of those songs is “Bad Boys Need Love Too,” which is as goofy and dorky as something Vulfpeck would put out, with Jurvanen sort-of rapping over a slow groove, before male and female voices exchange chorus parts. “Bad Boys Need Love Too” the women sing, followed by a guttural “You know who I’m talking about.” The whole thing would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so endearing. It’s the sort of song that seems unclassifiable, but that’s part of what the makes “Earthtones” so fun. It really feels like a singular vision from Jurvanen.
And Jurvanen seems to have found his groove on this record. “Everything to Everyone” revels in its syncopated guitar funk as Jurvanen laments his failures, turning his self-criticism into an anthemic chorus: “I can’t be everything to everyone / I don’t know why I always try to please everyone around me.”
Exploring this feeling, he seems to find the way out lies inside the music. The groove of the song is what keeps him going, even when he’s a depressed, self-loathing man full of regrets. Even by the end song, “Any Place,” which is drenched in emotions of sorrow and guilt, I’m not left with the idea of a man without anything to live for.
On “So Free,” in the midst of the album’s highest reach of neo-funk, Jurvanen meditates on the social and political realities of white privilege and the meaning of love. The song’s slow burn hits the soul groove Jurvanen is looking for right on the mark. And before it’s final instrumental rundown, the singer seems to find some way out of the constant onslaught of anxiety that plagues him.
“New me, I’m so free
Free from all my history
There’s no mystery”