The country, Americana, and folk genres are known for their storytelling. Specifically, these genres are often recognized for taking microcosms and making them feel like the most important stories on the planet. On The Very Last Day, though, the third full-length album from Parker Millsap, the 23-year-old singer/songwriter is writing about nothing less than the end of the world. This album is a big, bold, and brash work—a record about apocalyptic wars, religious strife, the act of burning buildings to the ground, and plenty of death and rapture. The Devil, God, and Jesus Christ all make appearances. There’s a song about a soldier who comes home from war, feels forsaken by everything, and starts robbing gas station mini marts to make up for it. There’s another song about a preacher’s son falling in love with another man. Throughout, Millsap evangelizes from the front pulpit, his fire-and-brimstone roar hitting the balance somewhere between gospel and Led Zeppelin-flavored rock ‘n’ roll.
To say that The Very Last Day is an unusual album would be an understatement. From the first second to the last, there is nothing derivative, lazy, boring, or unconvincing about this record. It is a gripping and thrilling roller coaster of an album, the musical equivalent of that one scene from Kingsman: The Secret Service where Colin Firth’s character fights and kills every person in that southern hate group church. It’s all hellfire and floodwater, blood and tears. It’s the only record I can imagine justifying a title like The Very Last Day.
A big part of the reason that this record sells its dire, larger-than-life themes as well as it does is Millsap’s voice. Listening to him sing, you’d think Parker Millsap was a blues band veteran with four or five decades of experience belting away in smoke-filled bars and gospel churches. Instead, he’s a lanky, 23-year-old white kid from Oklahoma. His voice is such a force of nature that, looking at pictures of him or watching videos of his live shows, it’s hard to believe his body can even contain that sound. On The Very Last Day, though, Millsap doesn’t just contain that sound; he lets it loose in a surge of fury and forgiveness, godliness and godlessness. It’s the most stunning vocal work I’ve heard on an album this year.
Millsap’s songs would be damn good in just about any hands, but with his voice behind the lyrics, they become instant classics. The title track lays the world to rest in almost whimsical fashion, with Millsap taking a hatchet to your hopes of religious salvation. “Ain’t no sweet chariot is gonna come/For to carry everybody home/No instead it’s gonna be a bomb/And here it come…” he sings in the third verse. When most of us think of the apocalypse, we probably do so with fear. The way Millsap sings “The Very Last Day,” you can almost see him smiling, like he’s looking forward to it.
Millsap’s songwriting is frequently as gleefully off-the-wall as it is in the title track. The album’s opener, called “Hades Pleads,” plays out like an escapist anthem, a boy asking a girl to climb into his car and run away with him. It could almost be “Thunder Road,” except the boy is actually Satan and he’s talking about taking the girl to his “house on the Styx” and crowning her the Queen of the Dead. Let’s be honest: there are probably like five people on the planet who could pull this shit off without spiraling into bad death metal territory. Luckily for us, Parker Millsap is one of those people.
“A Little Fire,” the album’s other escapist song, is a good deal more tranquil musically, but you can still sense the glint of something manic in Millsap’s eye. Like so many songwriters in so many country songs, the narrator here is tired of a dead-end job in a monotonous life. He wants to get away and take his lover with him, crooning “Babe, it wouldn’t cost much to leave this town/Go get ourselves lost, leave nothing to be found/But burnt exhaust and rubber on the ground.” Instead of just packing up and leaving, though, Millsap’s narrator wants to strike a match and leave the house burning to the ground as he and his girl drive off into the sunset together. “Wouldn’t it feel good/To leave a pile of ash where these walls stood?” he asks. Whether you take the song as a metaphor for burning down the bridges to your old life to start anew or as a daydream about actually burning down your old life to start anew, there’s a thrilling unpredictability to the lyrics—even if the song itself is a slow and lovely acoustic ballad.
Not that Millsap always needs that extra bit of edge to make him interesting. Songs like “Pining,” “Morning Blues,” and “Tribulation Hymn” show off his sense for melody and songcraft in more traditional ways, while his cover of “You Gotta Move”—an African American spiritual popularized first by Mississippi Frank McDowell and later by the Rolling Stones—lets his vocals take center stage.
Perhaps the most “important” song on this record is “Heaven Sent,” a dark and intense ballad that sounds a bit like Springsteen’s “The River.” As with the rest of the songs on this record, Millsap doesn’t get too wordy on “Heaven Sent.” His poetry is simple, sparse, and short, with concise verses that last for just four lines. In that short space, though, Millsap conveys an awful lot, singing from the point of view of a preacher’s son who was raised in the arms of the church and baptized to the order of Christianity. When he falls in love with his best friend—another boy—the narrator wonders if his own father and the religion he’s always known will damn him to hell for his sexuality.
“I just want to make you proud/Of the kind of love I’ve found/But you say it ain’t allowed/Say that it’s a sin/It’s how I’ve always been/Did you love me when he was my best friend?” Millsap sings in the verse. It’s a haunting question in the middle of a heartbreaking song, a song about how someone can lose their family, faith, and life foundation just for daring to love the person they love. It’s not easy to write songs about sensitive subjects like this—particularly if you’re a songwriter whose work lands somewhere not far from the ultra-conservative country music genre. Still, by using country’s storytelling format to his advantage, Millsap makes his points and asks his questions without pandering or speaking in platitudes. It’s the most impressive songwriting accomplishment on an album full of remarkable songwriting accomplishments.
A lot of the press surrounding The Very Last Day will revolve (and has revolved) around how Millsap is merely 23 years old. However, the important thing to note is not that Parker Millsap is making very good records for being just 23; it’s that he’s making very good records, period. With this album, Millsap’s name absolutely belongs on the shortlist of the brightest talents in the country, Americana, and folk music genres, from the already-recognized talents like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton to the younger up-and-comers like John Fullbright and Noah Gundersen. Stapleton sang his way into America’s hearts last November on the CMA Awards; with a voice like Millsap’s, it’s only a matter of time before he does the same.