In 2003, Thad Cockrell released his second album, the well-received Warmth & Beauty. Two years later, a take on the country-soul gem "Warm and Tender Love" anchored Begonias, Cockrell's collaboration with Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas. Either of those compound titles would serve as a fitting backup name for Cockrell's new full-length, To Be Loved, which started life as an EP and has continued to grow over the last three years during Cockrell's tenure in Nashville and his return to Raleigh in 2008. On this expanded collection, Cockrell's mountain-spring tenor and the accompanying arrangements possess a warmth that could leave a coal stove jealous. Still, the overall tone is a gliding, gentle one. In a word, it's gorgeous.
Those earlier releases—especially Warmth & Beauty and, more so, Cockrell's debut, Stack of Dreams—were country records and proud of it, heavy on the George and Buck and light on the alt. But To Be Loved takes a different tack. The country echoes, heard most distinctly on "Look Up Sara" and the aptly titled "A Country of My Own," ease into the crossover realm. Think Glen Campbell taking a string of Jimmy Webb songs to the charts. Elsewhere, courtesy of lush, layered numbers such as "Beauty Has a Name" and a cover of gospel artist Russ Taff's "I Cry," the best description might be symphonic pop—that is, so long as there's a seat in the back corner of the string section for a banjo. (And doing the subtle plucking is Joe Pisapia, one of the record's more valuable players and the lead sibling of Nashville band Joe, Marc's Brother, who made some of the best under-the-radar pop of the early '00s.) From the Van Morrison vibrations of the opening "Pride (Won't Get Us Where We're Going)" to the stripped-down closing hymn "Oh to Be Loved," To Be Loved is the sound of music from on high.
Thus, that's where the bar gets set for the lyrics. In the liner notes, Cockrell compares the album to a conversation about a variety of issues, with love and God at the forefront. When kicking around that first topic, Cockrell occasionally stumbles by indulging in the overly flowery or the excessively well traveled. The main offender is "Beauty Has a Name," its talk of gathering stars and walking in the rain perhaps an excusable side effect of love-giddiness. On the songs of faith, though, Cockrell excels, taking the kind of direct approach that characterizes the best of what hymnbooks offer. When you have Jesus on the main line, get to the point: "There's going to be a great rejoicing," Cockrell proclaims. Or, "I don't want to walk away from Him."
At the heart of the album is the striking pair of "Rosalyn" and "He Set Me Free." One's secular and one's spiritual, but both are designed to reassure. The former boasts an exceptionally deft vocal turn from Cockrell, as well as some mood-heightening dynamics and a refrain that soars. And on the latter, reprised from Stack of Dreams, the message is as matter-of-fact as its title, while the music is a Saturday night shuffle that gets saved come Sunday morning.
Cockrell let his early songs and performances roam under the banner of "Putting the hurt back in country." With To Be Loved, it's more like he's putting the relief back in, well, orchestral pop, gospel and countrypolitan. And he does so with warmth, with beauty and—here's one to set aside for the next album title—with grace.
For more, see www.thadcockrell.com.