The long tradition of brilliant Canadian songwriters continues with the second album from Del Suelo, a pseudonym for virtuoso guitarist and singer/songwriter Erik Mehlsen, The Musician’s Compass: a 12 Step Programme. It’s a concept album centering on the hard bitten travails of a musician, Devon, touring Europe and enduring a series of experiences prompting him to examine the path he’s chosen and his relationship with himself, his audience, and art. Naturally, we can expect that at least a certain degree, if not more, of the songwriting draws from personal experience, but Mehlsen has written a novel of the same title and subject matter, a fact illustrating, among other things, that Mehlsen is no mere memoirist, but a creative writer more than capable of invention. We could have expected Mehlsen, a respected and award winning songwriter, to produce a notable release, but The Musician’s Compass: a 12 Step Programme is really much more. It’s a revelatory effort revealing the true transformative extent of Erik Mehlsen’s talent.
Mehlsen isn’t afraid to challenge himself musically or experiment, but much of the music for The Musician’s Compass relies on direct and smartly composed arrangements enlivened by instantly memorable melodies. It’s a classic approach and Mehlsen makes it work for him without fail over the course of these dozen songs. “Second Encore”, the album opener, and some later tunes are proof Mehlsen has never played in a time signature he hasn’t wanted to manipulate in some way, but he invariably follows his Muse into rewarding territory. “Second Encore” and the album’s second song (and a notable single) “Pack Rats” shows he, likewise, isn’t afraid to unleash some instrumental pyrotechnics if they make sense within the context of the song. Keyboards and guitar alike volley back and forth in a fiery dialogue during the song’s second half. There’s a video going with this song that you should seek out for its keen visuals and sense of humor alone.
“A Lust Supreme” is one of the album’s finest melodic achievements and has a relaxed quality that few of the later songs come close to matching. There’s a sense of spontaneity enveloping this cut that makes it sound like one of those rare first takes where everything falls into place and all that’s left is some post production work to enhance things a little further. “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” has a virtually cinematic build, luring listeners deeper and deeper into the song’s experience as it develops, and eventually rewards your attention even more with some delicious late guitar playing from Mehlsen. One of the wildest and most successful moments comes with “Caress of Steel Wheels”, nominally another soulfully charged ballad with a great chorus melody, but Mehlsen surprises listeners with a guest rap and some on point higher register backing vocals. What an album. It’s difficult to summarize, even in a detailed way, the extent of what Mehlsen accomplishes with The Musician’s Compass: a 12 Step Programme, but I feel certain I can say you’ll hear nothing else like it in 2018 and maybe for years to come.