On his second album, Northeastern Pennsylvania artist James Barrett is vulnerable and brutally honest with himself about life’s disappointments. It’s a lyrically rich and nuanced effort, particularly for an artist in the early part of his career. That Barrett has made “A Series Of…Mostly Nothing” a musically nuanced and layered record while avoiding many of the cliched tropes of the pop-punk and emo genres might be an even more impressive accomplishment.
The songs can stand alone nicely, but it’s apparent from the scene-setting title track that this is not just a collection of songs — it’s a cohesive album. And he’s in a dark place, for sure: “Because if we are to die I would like to go out by your side,” he sings, the type of line that could ring hollow or overly earnest, but it works here because you can tell Barrett means it, and the music accompanying his sentiments makes you want to keep listening and find out why he’s ended up in this state.
Following that atmospheric introduction, Barrett shows his flair for the anthemic with the next tune, “Oh My God.” This is three-dimensional stuff, with melodic vocal flourishes twinned with guitar lines and some stop-start segments that add a sense of movement. The ballad “U-Haul” is well-placed in the third slot, with some emotive piano to close it out, and “The Art of Letting Go” is a fun slice of familiar, Celtic-flavored post-punk.
The almost comically maudlin titled “I Thought You Had Died” is another instance where Barrett has the confidence to bear his soul, but he doesn’t push it into Hot Topic territory. That he keeps the drum-free ballad to less than two minutes is wise, and it serves as an emotional and musical interlude halfway through the album.
The second half of the record is much like the first, and standouts include the poppy, mid-tempo “Love Song in 2020,” where Barrett ratchets up the intensity with some well-placed telling. “Master Plan” benefits from some acoustic guitar underpinning.
By the penultimate track, “Mostly Nothing,” Barrett has had enough, singing, “There’s nothing left for me to say about you/ There’s nothing left for me to write but still I do/ It’s all I do.”
“A Series Of…Mostly Nothing” should please listeners squarely in the emo camp, but Barrett is not tied to that (or any) genre. Indeed, a fan of Foo Fighters, The Killers, Coldplay or John Mayer can find a lot to like here. The only quibble, if Barrett is looking for some free advice: the mid-tempo, minor-key songs can make some of them hard to distinguish from one another. The ballads and interludes help, and the dynamics and layers within the songs themselves invite repeat listenings. So it’s not a perfect album. But neither is the journey and recovery Barrett takes listeners on, and that’s life.