Stephen Stanley's debut album, Divided Frame of Mind, is possibly one of the "biggest" releases to have slipped under the radar this year. It was poised for success with the major-label backing of Capitol CMG / Sparrow, having a viral Tik Tok song with "Whatever It Takes," and notable features from Tommee Proffit, Riley Clemmons, and MuteMath's Darren King. Yet, even now, several months out from its July 2023 release, you'll be hard pressed to find significant coverage for the release. It's a shame, because it is a fantastic album.
When Stephen Stanley first signed with Capitol CMG in 2021, we received a few pretty typical K-LOVE-friendly singles and an EP, but Divided Frame of Mind feels like an intentional shift in another direction. Stylistically, the album boasts an alternative rock sound with catchy hooks and big-sounding electric guitars. If a comparison to another artist comes to mind while listening to a track, the next song challenges that conclusion - take a listen to the 80's synths on "Outta My Mind," the fuzzy rock n' roll guitars of "Taking It Back," or the 2000's radio-rock vibe of "Whatever It Takes," for example. But it's not all for the sake of variety. There is a musical and thematic cohesion in the flow of the album in the way it takes us on a journey through Stephen Stanley's mind and his struggles with mental health. There are a few tracks that really clue you in that this album is a fully designed listening experience as opposed to a collection of singles. The 1-minute intro track sets up the theme of mental health over an atmospheric musical backdrop, "Taking It Back" serves as a "climax" featuring explosive drum work from MuteMath's Darren King, and the contemplative piano ballad "Where I've Been" is a fitting closing track declaring "there's gotta be a silver lining / God I need this road to bend / don't let my feet fail me / 'cause where I'm going ain't where I've been."
Ultimately, every song points to God as the source of rest and safety. But the way Stephen Stanley crafts his lyrics and bears his heart feels raw and sometimes even unresolved, rather than the neatly-tied bows we often hear on Christian radio. It's refreshing. While the songwriting is excellent, perhaps what is most distinct about Stephen Stanley's music is his voice - specifically the way he uses it. When he is singing normally, his voice almost could be described as a blend of Chris Llewellyn and Zach Williams, but he often shifts into a gruff yell, that sounds like he's about to crack, for large chunks of a song. The orchestrated ballad "Run and Hide" is a great example of the shift between these two vocal styles and hearing him sing-yelling over gentle strings and piano feels very brave.
What Stephen Stanley accomplishes on Divided Frame of Mind may not be immediately obvious from listening to individual tracks or even the first pass through the album. There's some surface level familiarity in the music, but there is a depth to everything that becomes more clear and compelling with each subsequent listen. On top of that, this album is surely a case of being greater than the sum of its parts. It's an album that keeps drawing you back in because it has both substance and style - equal parts enjoyable and impactful. If this one slipped by you this year, do yourself a favor and spend some time with it. Highlights include the entire first half of the album and the duet with Riley Clemmons, "Note To Self."- Review date: 12/20/23, written by Christopher Smith of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Capitol CMG
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