For the past several years, New Jersey-born Chapel Hill transplant Michael Venutolo-Mantovani has served as frontman for the raggedly lovable Everymen, a commendably unhinged garage and blue-eyed soul outfit. The band's take-no-prisoners live sets and general sense of abandon narrowly obscured an attention to cerebral songcraft and a latent sentimental streak. So it is eye-opening, but not fully surprising, when the opening strains of Venutolo-Mantovani's solo debut, The Happiest Man on Earth, reveal a very different sort of mood altogether: somber, contemplative, and marinating in complex emotions.
Perhaps with an eye toward explicating his new Southern identity, Venutolo-Mantovani recorded the album in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at Cypress Moon studios, where he conscripted a fine group of top-notch hands to serve as his backing band. The results are immediately evident, as tracks like the haunting, minor-key "A Girl Named Lou Pt. 3" and the ruminative "Nothing Good Happens After Midnight" pulse with an unhurried intensity that drapes Venutolo-Mantovani's closely sung growl in handsome sonic scenery. Elsewhere, the lilting highlight "Oh Susie" recalls Elvis Costello in King of America mode, wedding desperate sentiments to winsome roots rock.
With its down-in-the-groove tempos and occasionally harrowing meditations on death and aging, The Happiest Man on Earth is not an easy hang or a light one. Much of the release revolves around the passing of Venutolo-Mantovani's mother from cancer in 2016, and the sense of loss, letting go, and the terror of learning a new emotional vernacular pervade even his most hopeful songs. But by the time of the penultimate track "Chapel Hill"—a moving tribute and spirited devotional dedicated to Venutolo-Mantovani's wife—the sense of catharsis is well-earned and deeply worthwhile. On The Happiest Man on Earth, a talented artist reaches desperate ends, only to realize they are new beginnings.