In an alternate universe, Anderson East is still knocking around East Nashville, making understated singer-songwriter country, playing spot dates at the Bluebird, and funding records on PledgeMusic, like he did his first LP, Flowers Of The Broken Hearted. Instead, there he was on Ellen in October, doing “All On My Mind,” the lead single from his second album on Elektra (and mega Nashville producer Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound), brought to the show by direct decree from Ellen herself, who heard East on her radio and told her bookers she needed him on the show. With Encore, East--who made earnest Americana with a slight soul twinge before he hooked up with Cobb--firmly establishes himself as maybe the premiere young soul singer out right now, less pop-oriented than Nathaniel Rateliff and less past-oriented than Leon Bridges. Encore is a ripping country-soul album that sneaks up on you; the songs here open and feel more vast with repeated listens.
East’s 2015 album, Delilah, was met with a muted response, but East toured with fellow Cobb-mate Sturgill Simpson, often playing with just a guitar and no backing band. It left him nowhere to hide; when I saw him on the Metamodern Sounds tour, his voice was raw, and he kept a crowd in the palm of his hands with how naked the performance was. In the years since Delilah and that tour, East had his mainstream breakthrough, but not for strictly musical reasons; he’s been dating megastar Miranda Lambert, and co-wrote with her on “Pushin’ Time” from her The Weight Of My Wings album. The tabloid exposure is great, but it doesn’t mean much if East can’t deliver the goods.
But those tabloid stories mean Encore arrives with the first real expectations of East’s career, and he and Cobb double down on the soul moves of Delilah, improving upon that album’s format of augmenting East’s rich voice with backing choruses and horns and Big soul that sounds like it could have been made in Muscle Shoals. The songs here are packed with enthusiastic horn sections, and guitar solos, and handclaps. East can go from stompers like “King For A Day” to lowdown ballads like “If You Keep Leaving Me” to tracks with firecracker guitar riffs like “Girlfriend” with ease. He’s growing into his voice in a big way here; the East of his PledgeMusic days wouldn’t have been able to pull off something like “All On My Mind,” a slowburn, sensual soul song that requires East to scream and vent in a way he hasn’t before. It’s his best song so far, an deliverance of all of the things that vaulted him on “Artist to Watch” lists a couple years ago. East may have started his musical career as another guy toting a guitar into Nashville bars, but he belongs to soul music now, and Encore announces his arrival with gusto.