Freeburg, IL, native John Dennis has lived a long life in his mere 27 years, but he’s certainly never hidden his story away. From the death of his girlfriend Adrienne in 2010 to his subsequent and near-fatal battle with alcoholism to his journey through recovery, Dennis has efficiently and poetically crafted his story, beliefs, and feelings into song and things are no different with his newest release Mortal Flames. Following the elemental title theme of his first two albums—Eternity’s Tree (2014) and Second Wind (2017)—Mortal Flames finds Dennis asking en lieu of telling; How does one process and heal wounds of the past or how does man find meaning in life in the face of mortality? Set for release on January 31st, 2020, Mortal Flames is a concept album of sorts, chronologically following the timeline of human life from birth to death—including adolescence, first love, loss, and new beginnings—never missing a step along the way.
The album’s lead single and first track, “First Light,” delves into Dennis’s own version of a creation myth. “I wanted to set up the ‘mortal flames’ idea by challenging myself to imagine my own poetic version of existence coming to be,” says Dennis. “The idea that resonated most with me was that of all life being a part of one great, harmonious—and sometimes cacophonous—song and dance; and its fundamental ‘meaning’ is to continually experience the wonder of itself.” Today, “First Light” premiered exclusively via The Bluegrass Situation; listen here.
Filled with equal parts beautifully finger-picked acoustic and gritty, tremolo-drenched electric guitars, Mortal Flames is painted with detailed, thoughtful strokes, even when the bigger picture is broadly rock and roll. Take for example, “Board Game Money,” which represents childhood in the chronology of Mortal Flames. “Board Game Money” rollicks right into a stomp and clap laden ruckus, but, like all of the songs on this album, the depth of the song’s content is more than meets the eye. “At its inception, the idea for this song came from the ironic combination of feeling like I was barely scraping by financially and several late-night Monopoly game nights,” says Dennis. “But to tell the album’s story, I also wanted to have a song that conjured the wistfulness of being a kid with all of the limitlessness of imagination and possibility—hence the heavy use of mythical and fairy tale imagery.”
On the latter half of Mortal Flames, “Good Good Love” is the reverse of the coin, representing a period of learning to love again within the album’s timeline. The song revolves around the precipice of Dennis’s relationship with his current girlfriend. “We both had been hurt deeply in the past, and the idea of being faced with something that seemed genuinely good, let alone being deserving of it was frightening,” Dennis remembers. “‘Good Good Love’ is about that place. I guess what I was thinking was ‘what is the one thing everyone needs to hear?’ and that became the lyrics to the chorus.” Mortal Flames closes with “Oh Beloved,” a song which Dennis wanted to “not only signified the death of the main character but also, describe what I would want said to me before my own death.” “To me it sums up all of the things I would want to say to someone who is dying,” continues Dennis. “And the lines ‘nobody blames you for having to leave’ and ‘your failures mean nothing, it’s success just to be’ specifically aim to comfort the part of me that would feel guilty to die and to leave behind those that I love.” After the last breath of “Oh Beloved” is breathed, the ethereal whistling motif from “First Light” ties the entire story together, signaling the cycle of life to begin again. Mortal Flames ends as it begins; from dust to dust, an invitation for all, alongside John Dennis, to tell our own stories and bear our own scars.