“Second Encore” kicks off Del Suelo’s second studio release The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme with a swell of live audience. It provides the perfect curtain rising atmosphere for a song collection that takes life as a musical act for its subject matter; the artist behind the Del Suelo name, Erik Mehlsen, has literary ambitions as well and the album comes with an accompanying novel. You can’t claim Mehlsen aims small. Despite his ambitions, however, the album consistently maintains the fully realized composure we hear with its second song and impressive single “Pack Rats”. It’s a truly multi-media experience, in some respects, thanks to Mehlsen filming a music video for the song and the likely existence of some narrative antecedent in the novel as well. The video, obviously a thoroughly conceived labor of love and professionally shot, nonetheless shows off Mehlsen’s under the radar sense of humor. It’s easy to lose, unfortunately, a bead on the sheer fun he seems to be having here as both a songwriter and performer when we’re so wide-eyed over the project’s high aspirations.
The bright lights and dissipation of city night life runs through the album’s next two songs, albeit expressed in very different ways. “Berlin Calling” is all punk rock rush and straight to the point, but it’s never a throwaway despite running less than ninety seconds. “A Lust Supreme”, however, is a lush, luxurious tune with style to burn and deserves consideration as one of the album’s best cuts. It’s a marvel to me how so many tracks on this album feature Mehlsen reaching unlikely, at least on the surface, soulful heights and the writing puts a spotlight on that facet of his talent without ever overstating the influence in his music or coming off as imitative.
The last song on the album with any sort of explicit lyrical content is “A Panic! at the Disco/the Fulsome Prison Blues” and the artful shape of this song moves through a variety of moods without ever seeming disjointed or uneasily matched. Maintaining a narrative over the course of a concept album, particularly an linear narrative, is a tricky proposition, but Mehlsen succeeds concentrating on character development first and foremost and Devon, the main character of Mehlsen’s story, has a convincing point of view thanks to the power of the character’s “voice”. Another confident and melodic jewel comes with the song “Caress of Steel Wheels” and it’s notable how the exhausted and rough hewn qualities of Mehlsen’s story and themes contrast with the cool sweep and sway of the song arrangements. There are some musical suggestions of those aforementioned themes, but Mehlsen focuses more on orchestrating compelling dynamics for the collection.
The focus pays off in a large way with the longest track “Darn that Dream/Stairway to Eleven”. Structured much like the earlier pairing of “A Panic! at the Disco/the Fulsome Prison Blues”, this nearly seven minute long song has ample drama and character development packed into its running time and the musical exploration never tires you or tests a listener’s patience. It’s the ideal big finale for The Musician’s Compass, but “Walk the Plank” ends the album on a note of uneasy endurance and the atmospheric musical performance provides an apt sonic conclusion for this stunning second album.