It’s impressive enough that Quinn Sullivan is releasing his fourth full album Wide Awake having just turned 22 years of age. Even stranger that it’s been so long since his last one – Midnight Highway came out in 2017, when the Massachusetts guitar prodigy was just 17. The intervening years have made a difference too – whereas Midnight Highway still owed a huge debt to his blues roots, with the vocals playing second fiddle to the guitar, Wide Awake sees Sullivan come of age as a songwriter and singer. Sure, it’s still a guitar-based album, with complex arrangements and plenty of backing riffs and striking solos, but it veers further than ever before into the pop and soul end of the spectrum, and he’s good at it too.
Album opener All Around The World for instance, the set’s lead single, is an infectiously groovy, gently-rolling pop song with a social conscience. It’s a great number and probably the highlight of the album for this reviewer, and although the solo is bluesy, the song isn’t – it put me in mind of BB King’s Better Not Look Down, which gave that blues master some rare UK popular radio exposure in 1979. In A World Without You too, is reminiscent of Santana’s most commercial 1980s material with it’s Latin-inspired beats married to a pop-rock sensibility. Perhaps the clearest indication that Sullivan is pulling away from the blues into soul territory though, is the torch ballad She’s Gone (& She Ain’t Coming Back), which not only presents him in a fully RnB vein, but deliberately name-checks a couple of Marvin Gaye songs in the lyric, without sounding out of place in any way.
Baby Please is another highlight, with some imaginative percussion and a sparse-sounding but still surprisingly intricate backing, and some nice flanger (or similar effect) on the guitar. Elsewhere, the sound continues to borrow from the more commercial end of highly respected artists – Real Thing sits astride a galloping rhythm that brings Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill to mind, while You’re The One, another highlight, could easily be Mike & The Mechanics. The closest we come to actual rock is Strawberry Rain, towards the end of the set, with a sweet wah pedal solo and heavily effected guitars performing in answer-back, and a tight ending. More unexpected variety appears with the country-infused ballad Jessica, (not the Allman Brothers instrumental), with its acoustic guitar intro and reverb-infused jangly backing.
The twelve songs give a total running time of a shade under 50 minutes, the production is pin-sharp and the arrangements never short of interest and subtle complexity. Although Sullivan continues to be touted as a guitarist, and make no mistake, his axe work is mature, considered, and very, very good, this album to me is much more about his excellent vocal work – the technique and emotional content is there, as well as an impressive ability to drift in and out of the falsetto range at will. If you’re after blues, you won’t find it here, but if you are looking for excellently rounded-out pop soul with a heavy reliance on great guitar work, then you most assuredly will.