A hollow groove is filled with colorful harmonious guitar play as we sink into the plush melodies of Stepping Out of Time’s opening title track. Steven MacDonald’s latest record doesn’t waste any time laying out a gentle jam before our ears and captivating us with its complex beat, which struts with a swagger that was only hinted at in his rivals’ recent work. Introspection is a big part of what makes this LP feel so intimate and emotional, and the first song is one of the more vulnerable moments in the record. It’s complemented by the following track “Everything Starts From Nothing,” which augments the folk-style sway of the opener into an all-out powerhouse.
The song evens out the terrain a little with its shimmering guitar licks that bounce off of one another, and as we transition into the menacing dirge of “The Love I’ve Known” one thing becomes most definitely certain. MacDonald is among America’s most skilled unsung folk musicians at the moment, and his new album does everything it can to break down the enigma surrounding his craftsmanship and bolster the many talents of its multidimensional star without sacrificing any of his acrylic tones.
“The Love I’ve Known” is as bluesy as MacDonald has been willing to go as a songwriter, but it’s not a far stretch from the bucolic acoustic tunes that it’s accompanied by in this record. The blunt disdain for corruption referenced in the lyrics essentially makes it a more rebellious song than any of the others here (save for “A Rush”), and it stands out as one of the more energetic and surreally appointed tracks I’ve heard in the whole of his growing discography. The volatility of the structure crumbles as we move onto “The Chords Wouldn’t Play” and then the bold “Empty Shell,” which is propelled by a guitar that bonds to the leathery, road-word vocals exquisitely. Even when MacDonald is being as rough and tumble as he can be in the studio, the mix never lets his inner wild child take over the controls behind the glass.
This is a startlingly spellbinding LP when you let it play from beginning to end without interruption, which can mostly be attributed to its progressive arrangement. Rather than giving us bits and pieces of his persona scattered throughout the tracks, MacDonald lets us peel away the layers of his identity one song at a time. We learn from each element within his emotional scope before reaching a climax with a poignant, simple folk ballad that leaves a haunting impression long after the instruments cease to play. As far as I’m concerned this is a breakthrough record for this artist, and he does not fail to deliver a masterpiece in his new album. 2023 has been an incredibly big year for popular music on both the underground and mainstream levels, and if MacDonald continues to turn out records as intriguing as this one he’s going to find himself living quite well on the mainstream side of the business come 2024.