It’s hard to believe that Trouble Is Real is the debut album by a 21-year-old. While Johnathan Rice’s husky, careworn voice makes these youthful tunes sound like songs of considerable experience, the mature feel of this record has as much to do with his versatility and reach as a writer. Rice moves effortlessly between genres, blending folk, country, blues and rock, although never as a superficial dabbler trying on and discarding styles. Eclectic he might be, but for all the range, there’s also considerable depth to his writing that shows he’s steeped in the works of progenitors like Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake and Neil Young and has a precocious grasp of what makes great, timeless music.
Built largely around Rice’s voice and acoustic guitar, hushed, fragile ballads such as “Break So Easy” and “City on Fire” have a beautifully understated charm. Most impressive, though, are the bolder, more dynamic “Mid November” and “My Mother’s Son,” which balance the intimacy of his vocals with epic, dramatic, string-washed arrangements. In stark contrast with these full-bodied songs, some of the other highlights are barely there at all: for instance, the fragment “Put Me in Your Holy War” and a snippet of “Hickory Wind” sound like spectral country music heard fleetingly as you turn the dial of an antique radio. Elsewhere, hard-driving, muscular numbers like “Salvation Day” show Rice can rock with convincing gravitas and urgency. His whimsical moments are no less compelling, especially the toy-piano sing-along “Stay at Home” (complete with children’s chorus and Theremin) and the breezy “Lady Memphis,” whose head-nodding, foot-tapping groove has something of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.” A mightily impressive debut.