Gerry Beckley has earned the right to call the opening track of his new solo album “Life Lessons.” The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and America co-founder is understandably in a reflective mood on Five Mile Road, out now from Blue Elan Records. The artist may be celebrating 50 years with America, but he still has plenty to say. For his first solo album since 2016’s Carousel, Beckley has reunited with many of the same collaborators. Jeff Larson not only co-produced with Beckley but contributes vocals. Singer Jeffrey Foskett, Nick Lane (euphonium, trombone), Larry Klimas (saxophone), Ryland Steen (drums), and Dave Raven (drums) all appear again, alongside fellow top-notch players like Hank Linderman (guitar), CPR’s Jeff Pevar (guitar), Poco’s Rusty Young, Larry Treadwell (guitar), and ex-Chicago member Jason Scheff (bass).
Five Mile Road is very much a singer-songwriter record in the classic style. Clean, sparkling productions from Larson and Beckley, rich harmonies, and above all, well-considered songcraft are its hallmarks. Throughout its twelve songs are hook-filled choruses; thoughtful, deeply felt lyrics; and traditional song structures with bridges. A number of these compositions (all solely written by Beckley save “Life Lessons,” which he co-wrote with former Lost in Space star and one half of Barnes and Barnes, Bill Mumy) will be familiar to longtime fans as they first appeared on Jeff Larson’s acclaimed 2009 album Heart of the Valley. Beckley produced and primarily wrote that LP, including the tracks reprised here: “Heart of the Valley,” “Five Mile Road,” “Sudden Soldier,” “Calling,” and “Two People at Once.”
“Love’s here all along,” Beckley summarizes in the upbeat, shimmering “Life Lessons.” Unsurprisingly, love figures mightily into the album’s songs, all worthy successors to the beautiful likes of America’s “Only in Your Heart.” As 1972’s “I Need You” was that group’s first song to receive numerous covers (from artists as diverse as Andy Williams and Harry Nilsson), it’s no shock that Beckley still excels at genuine, heart-on-his-sleeve balladry. Here, he offers the affecting, rueful plea to “(Give Me) Something to Remember” and the sweetly yearning “Calling,” a melodic treat that’s one of the album’s strongest cuts. The wistful “Heart of the Valley,” with its “Lonely People”-esque lilt (yes, that’s not a Beckley song, but it’s still part of his musical DNA) is very much set in Southern California (“Right through the middle on the 405/You start to believe it”) but its emotions are accessible and universal. The contemplative “Two People at Once” is one of the many songs here with a melody that lodges itself in your head long after the disc has ended.
There’s plenty of rock-and-roll, too. The driving “Home Again,” with its catchy, wordless refrain, recalls the forward momentum and folk-rock beat of America’s early classics; Beckley began writing it in the 1970s and it was the last song recorded for Five Mile Road. The upbeat, urgent “Stop Feeling Sorry” has an “It’s O.K.”-esque Beach Boys groove, while the admonition to “Hang Your Head High” is an arena-ready rouser. For all of the delicious musical comfort food, there are strong, idiosyncratic tracks here, too. Striking imagery and spirituality infuse the enigmatic “So Long, Marni.” The striking slice-of-life “Sudden Soldier” (“I live in airports/So I’ve seen all sorts/I see them come and go/They’re wearing camo/Their faces aglow/They’re heading off I know…”) features irresistible George Harrison-style slide guitar, played by Hank Linderman.
While America’s 50th anniversary celebration is still very much in full swing, Gerry Beckley’s detour to his own Five Mile Road makes for a journey well worth taking for any fan of atmospheric, moving, and well-crafted pop.