Across five albums as the leader of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, the Vermont-bred singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Grace Potter has earned plenty of name recognition. Enter Midnight, her first solo album. Potter and the Nocturnals broke through with their 2010 self-titled album, which debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard 200. People like Kenny Chesney started taking notice of Potter and enlisting her for their own songs — in this case, Chesney’s Grammy-nominated “You and Tequila” and, later, “El Cerrito Place” and this year’s hit “Wild Child”. Even if Potter isn’t naturally a country singer (and she isn’t), country fans have taken a liking to her, widening her fan base and demanding this moment, her solo debut.
But there were stops along the way after the initial breakthrough. Another album from Potter and the Nocturnals, 2012’s The Lion the Beast the Beat, followed that 2010 eponymous effort and “You and Tequila”. Potter has also climbed enough rungs that she and her new solo band were able to open up for The Rolling Stones at two tour stops in June, with Potter entrusted to sing “Gimme Shelter” alongside Mick Jagger at Minneapolis’ TCF Bank Stadium. And why not: Whether or not a superstar like Jagger or Chesney is with her in the studio or onstage, she’s a vivacious presence destined for her own success, separate from the Nocturnals.
By now, Potter has traveled practically everywhere in the realms of Americana and traditional rock music, and done so ably. On Midnight, she goes for an even broader range of sounds, including (in order of least surprising to most) The Band-esque heartland stomp, vaguely twangy Southern rock, sensual new wave glide, and wiggly post-Pharrell funk. It’s a bold array, and the songs themselves are pretty bold, too, with multi-tracked choruses, erupting electric guitar riffs, and propulsive percussion. It’s a concise, hooky collection of songs with which the 32-year-old Potter has given herself chances to become bigger than ever as a solo name.
That’s one way of looking at things, anyway. Another view says that these songs are too bouncy and crystalline to be subtle or even particularly artistic, and maybe that doesn’t align with the fine work Potter has done with the Nocturnals. Things quiet down during the album’s final third with “Low”, but even that song builds enough that it feels as colossal as jubilant lead single “Alive Tonight”. That’s not necessarily a flaw, though the Nocturnals’ understated whimsicality has made for some of their defining moments. When they get to the closer on their albums — take This Is Somewhere’s “Big White Gate”, for example — they always seem to hit on a refined grandeur that keeps substance at the heart of its audacity. The songs on Midnight, on the other hand, convey their meaning at the expense of specificity. “You and me, together we’re gonna be/ The instigators/ Revolution loves company/ We are the revelators,” Potter declares on “Instigators”. The exceptions, like penultimate song “Nobody’s Born with a Broken Heart” and its narrative verses, are rare.
Clearly, Midnight was designed as a hit machine, or at least any song here could be a single. “There’s nothing like a party to make you move this way/ There’s nothing stopping me from sweeping you away,” Potter glows on “Biggest Fan”, a song about reveling in the emotional highs of a party and, seemingly, a statement about this album’s bubbly nature. Whether ebullient, regretful, or somewhere in between, Potter is an engaging center of attention, coming up with impressive (if under-nuanced) performances more often than not.
Essential Tracks: “Alive Tonight”, “Empty Heart”, and “Nobody’s Born with a Broken Heart”