It’s hard to pin down what it is about Cory Chisel that makes his music so humdrum. Functionally, everything about it works at some level or another: adequate lyrics, well-structured compositions, often interesting guitar work. But his songs also ring false—dry, bloodless factory pieces with too soft, too rounded edges. His brand of rustic Americana feels like it came fully formed from a package, and though it’s unfair to call Death Won’t Send a Letter joyless, it’s glaringly short on thrill.
There are glancing moments where Chisel sounds like a latter-day Bruce Springsteen, or Johnny Cash, or even Ryan Adams. Such flashing bits of recognizance dot an album whose stock in trade is familiarity, both in Chisel’s folksy humanism and his blues and gospel influences. The graceful choruses and nifty guitar lines of songs like “Born Again” are easy to admire, but they’re no fun to listen to, recalling artists who’ve made nearly identical sounds with far more life.
The closest comparison seems to be with a band like Two Gallants, who do the same fundamental thing as Chisel, mining a direct and familiar musical lode. Both are imperfect, sometimes tediously faithful and riddled with little faults, but the Gallants feel like a living, breathing band. Their songs have passion and energy. Chisel feels like a frozen yogurt machine that dispenses smooth, fat-free Americana. It’s a cold efficiency that places form before feeling, and if not entirely Chisel’s fault, evinces a propensity for masquerade that never feels genuine. His songs are often very good, the prettiness of ballads like “Mockingbird” and “Tennessee” real and palpable, but they’re delicate pieces that, upon a closer look, have long since stopped breathing.