Christian Lopez isn’t merely riding the wave of Americana, the West Virginian native is bending it to its knees. As the son of a music teacher, he was learning piano and guitar by the time he was in kindergarten, and he recorded his debut album, produced by Americana super-producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), when he was just 18. But on his new album The Other Side, Lopez transcends all of those hot-shot titles to emerge a well-rounded and experienced artist.
A collection of 12 eclectic songs that veer from sprightly indie-rock to brutally vulnerable ballads, The Other Side, produced by Robert Adam Stevenson, is the sound of a man who knows precisely who he is. Now 25, he’s excised the trappings of a youth run wild and all but killed the ego that can undermine the evolution of an artist. “Take the blade from my hand and do what I can’t: cut me down,” Lopez pleads in the slow-burning “Tanglin’.” He doubles down on that sentiment of transformation in the brooding title track: “I’m gonna go to the woods and come out the other side,” he sings over and over again like a mantra.
“This album is a product of the strength I had to walk away from everything I knew,” Lopez says. “I had to start fresh on my own.”
A musician’s musician, Lopez plays every instrument on The Other Side, with an assist from drummer Carl Thompson. While the West Virginia native’s earlier albums, 2015’s Onward and the 2017 follow-up Red Arrow, embraced more organic sounds and instruments — underscoring his Appalachian lineage and roots-rock pedigree — The Other Side smartly expands and electrifies his palette. It’s a muscular record, dynamic and unencumbered by genres, but with hints of Lopez’s influences: the Avett Brothers, David Byrne, Tom Waits, and Johnny Cash.
Lead-off track “Nothing Wrong” opens with a galloping bass line before exploding into a swirling wall of sound punctuated by Lopez’s slashing guitar. “Feel the Same” punches up blue-collar rock lyrics (“I had a ’70s coupe and a buck in my hand”) with stacked background vocals and a cascading solo. And “Finish What You Started” is Carl Perkins gone punk, a blast of 21st century rockabilly that finds Lopez singing through a thick veil of distortion.
“If I want my music to last in the world, I have to stay as authentic as possible, and that means not compromising or being boxed in," he says. "That also applies to just being a human. Wherever that leads me, I’m sure that’ll be the place that I was meant to be, both musically and mentally.”
But Lopez may be at his most irresistible when he’s crooning. His voice is an earnest tenor, elastic and versatile, yet also lived-in — roughed up from years spent on the road playing bars and clubs. Listen to the ache in the solo acoustic ballad “Miss Me Too” when he sings, “What am I supposed to do? I’m still twisted up in you.” Or the empowerment he sells so expertly in the album’s closer “Braver.” “Gotta be braver than you think you are,” Lopez instructs. And you believe it.
Remarkably, Lopez says being a vocalist was never part of the plan. “I never wanted to be a singer when I started,” he says. That he’s able to admit that now speaks to how far he’s come from the swaggering guitar wunderkind of his teenage years. It’s true self-discovery.
“Whoever you are, whatever you do/there’s always someone searching for you,” he sings in the majestic “Who You Really Are.” For Lopez, that someone was himself.