Adam Haworth Stephens is broken. Arriving at a coffee shop near the 24th and Mission BART station, the singer and guitarist behind local duo Two Gallants shuffles in from the foggy evening like some spindly patient, wrapped in a long coat with a few wisps of strawlike hair hanging out of his knit cap. He waves a deeply scabbed arm — and a hospital bracelet — in a polite but unenthusiastic hello. Four days ago, a driver didn't stop near Cesar Chavez and Highway 101. Stephens, who was riding his bike to a nearby rehearsal space, was in the way. And tonight, this one-time performer of Southern slave songs and other antique laments, who, along with drummer Tyson Vogel, aimed to sharpen the edge on American roots music, feels tremors of the accident inside his narrow shell. He talks nothing like the drinking, screwing, fighting narrator of many Two Gallants tunes. But this is the Stephens we should get used to.
On his new solo album, We Live on Cliffs, Stephens steps out from the historical role-playing of the project that won him a spot on Saddle Creek Records and sent him on multiple European tours. These folk-pop songs trade the brittle production and fantastical storytelling of Two Gallants for the vulnerability and ordinariness of Stephens' own mind — or at least parts of it. "I just can't help but write things that are more realistic and more personal, not exaggerated and theatrical," he says of his solo work. "I don't like to write things that don't mean something to me."
We Live on Cliffs, then, sounds like a man finally letting his own scabs show. It sounds like a step toward maturity. In contrast to the spare drums-and-guitar assault of Two Gallants, Stephens' solo album was built by a full band, with keys, piano, slide guitar, and even ukulele. So it also sounds very, very pretty.
For this, we can partially thank famed producer Joe Chiccarelli, a Grammy-winning veteran of Frank Zappa, the White Stripes, and the Shins, among others. He polished Stephens' streams of heartbreak and scenic plaints into lush, NPR-friendly panoramas that would offend no one, except perhaps some of their real-life subjects. Stephens hints that this recasting didn't always happen easily. "We had our arguments," he says of working with Chiccarelli, citing a "generational gap" in deciding how things should sound.
One wonders if that rift led to the easygoing pop of "Second Mind," and "Angelina," which soften more of Stephens' vocal and emotional edge than they should. But on other numbers — most notably, album centerpiece "The Cities That You've Burned" — Chiccarelli's immaculate sonics lend extra sting to Stephens' barbed lines: "Switch like a switchblade my love, cut the young man down," Stephens sings over a rising wash of piano. "You've been to heaven above, but your feet have never touched the ground." The album is at its best — its most real — while shoving these weighty feelings toward their sighing climax. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stephens is hesitant to give details about who inspired them. "It's about a person that I care about a lot who defines happiness in terms that I don't believe in, that I don't think she believes in," he says. "I know a lot of people — I think we all do — who are depressed, or they aren't satisfied with their lives, and they think that they're finding some sort of solution to that in shopping, or in finding some random guy or girl ... and nothing ever gets solved."
This seems like a different person from the Adam Stephens who barked jailbird fury and sang of murdering his wife with Two Gallants. Lyrically and vocally, the tension isn't so immediate, and backed by a full band, Stephens can afford to give less of himself as a performer. He seems ambivalent about the change — and maybe missing Two Gallants, which is on a temporary break. But he is honest. "I'm enjoying [the solo project], but it's also not as exhausting in a positive way," he says, smiling through a grimace. He eyes his hospital bracelet and chuckles. "I come offstage and it doesn't feel quite as draining — which is maybe better since, you know, I'm 29 now. I might need to take it easy."