Mark Conklin’s six song EP Starting Over is one of those releases that actually can claim to have something for everyone. It covers socially conscious subject matter, romantic heartbreak, deep introspection, and offers marvelous storytelling with near novelistic flair. He began his musical journey as a songwriter and touring musician before abandoning his creative endeavors in favor of working as an industry executive and artist manager. The clarion call of pursuing his own art, however, nagged at his heart until he decided in 2017 to reconnect with his muse in a more direct fashion. He continues working in the industry elsewhere as Director of Artist Relations and Programming for the GRAMMY Museum Experience where he builds educational programs and workshops for scores of student visitors among other endeavors but, while he harbors an obvious passion for such pursuits, a single listen to this EP’s seven songs reveals where his true calling lies.
The title song opens things in quite an effective way. Conklin has pledged obvious fidelity to traditional country music, but he isn’t writing about clichéd country tropes. The song, instead, is for mature listeners who know the pain of regret and bracing themselves for life’s frequent bumps in the road. The melancholy is palpable. The musical character of the song has a slight bluesy edge with its ghostly slide guitar, but the overall arrangement has a muted and stately quality while highlight Conklin’s rich yet weary voice. The second track “Circus” is a character study and the EP’s longest track. Conklin chronicles the hard fading days of a longtime performer who has fallen on hard times using the metaphor of a circus to flesh out his characterization. The outstanding literary qualities of the lyrics never risk pretension. The presence of accordion at various points in the track invokes the circus atmosphere he looks to conjure and song shifts from a muted opening to a far more powerful middle section without ever becoming heavy handed or losing the song’s sensitivity.
“No Savior” has other outstanding qualities. Conklin’s lyrics are, once again, on point as he laces religious references throughout the track. There’s once again another ghostly slide guitar weaving through the song at recurring points but the predominant musical instrument is acoustic guitar. The pairing of Conklin’s voice with a female backing vocalist adds another memorable quality to the performance. “When a Girl Gives Up” is another powerful moment on the release depicting the end of a relationship. It’s a place where many adult men and, changing the gender in the title men as well, find themselves throughout life and sports a fragile beauty rife with regret.
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“Toy Soldiers” decries the lines dividing classes in modern American life that sends the young off to war, saddles them with debt, and often sees them returning from foreign soils either dead or damaged beyond repair. It has a forceful musical quality without ever pressing too hard and the light roll of drumming running throughout the track is another high point. Conklin’s Starting Over is a marvelous release from beginning to end and has the sort of emotional and musical clarity many hope for in the finest outings. It’s well worth your time delving into this release.