Jacob Robert Stephens is a double threat in that he's an accomplished guitarist—skilled at the sweet-and-mournful melody—and, with a master's degree in creative writing under his belt, he has an ear for just the right words and images. On his latest album, Despite the Broken String, the Missoula singer-songwriter sings about old flames and new love with comparisons to the natural world, but thank goodness he knows how to do that without overripe emotion. Stephens' other superpower is his understated approach, so in "Bull River," for instance, when he sings about wildflowers peeking up through the snow and the sky falling away from the stars, it doesn't feel like melodrama.
There are times on Despite the Broken String when the instrumentation and mixing seems off—sometimes the drums and pedal steel tumble in with clumsy entrances and bury the harmonies. It's a little distracting, but the songwriting mostly makes up for it. The album includes some expected ingredients, like that pedal steel, but the addition of piano and Dixieland horns gives it that much more character—especially on "North Winter Blues," where the narrator, broke down in the snow, dreams of the warm streets of New Orleans. This is an album about time measured in empty whiskey bottles and seasons. The way that theme carries through the collection makes a good case for why listening to a full album—not just cherry-picking songs—should never become an antiquated notion.