Superstars like Keith Urban or Taylor Swift might make you question it, but country music has always had close ties with soul and gospel. Johnny Reid is a class act who hearkens to those older traditions, crafting a pastiche sound with enough southern flavour to ensure it rotation in mainstream country radio. On Fire It Up, his seventh album, don’t expect any songs about drinking cheap beer at a dive bar or waking up to find your wife and pickup truck missing; love, relationships, and life are something sacred, exalted in a scratchy voice retaining a Scottish flourish and backed by pianos, brass, and choral singers.
Reid’s most recent release isn’t preachy, and yet the journey through the dozen tracks is clearly intended to be a religious or spiritual one. The eponymous opening track mounts momentum from the simple downpicking of an acoustic guitar, embracing a full band sound and a message about pro-actively improving your world perspectives, and your life in the process. At the end of the record, “Till We Meet Again” has slowed the tempo down and, with the addition of pipes, is a sentimental farewell that will be the graduation song of at least one high school this year: we’ve shared and learned together, and now it’s time for you to go off in the world. In between these bookends are Johnny Reid’s musings on life and love, handled with sophistication and sincerity. The whole album deals in universal themes and invites the listener in – with the exception of the beautiful “Love of a Lifetime,” which is a candid serenade to one woman, and a significant addition to the track list.
Fire It Up may lack the complexity and crassness for some younger audiences, yet it offers a more diverse sound than Reid’s previous offering, A Place Called Love, which leaned more in the adult contemporary direction. This album also features two duets: “Baby I Know It” with Carolyn Dawn Johnson (a Canadian country songstress with a strong voice but little recognition outside of CMT) and “Walking on Water” with Serena Ryder. Ryder is a prominent voice on the indie scene, and one of the most under-appreciated female artists in Canadian music – despite the genre hopping, her presence effortlessly complements Reid in a sensual, visceral fashion.
Even derivative imagery and song structures can’t take away from the fact that Fire It Up is an original album. Johnny Reid isn’t stuck in the past, but rather grown-up enough to appreciate the sounds and styles of the 1960s and pay them relevant homage in a 2012 context. The sound is full and the production crisp, and though no one song sticks out, the album stands whole and gives the downhearted and the optimist alike something to lean on.