Shortly after wrapping his new album, Nashville, Josh Rouse left Nashville and moved to Spain, ending nearly a decade in Music City. A little time in Europe will likely alter Rouse's rich, soulful folk-pop sound significantly, because he tends to incorporate whatever style he gets into, and there's no shortage of new styles to absorb overseas. If so, Nashville makes a fine summation of Rouse's career to date. The lo-fi, twangy slacker tales of his 1998 debut Dressed Up Like Nebraska return on "Middle School Frown," the living-room Cure/Smiths homages of Home show up on "Winter In The Hamptons" and "Carolina," the densely heartbroken soundscapes of Under Cold Blue Stars appear on "My Love Has Gone," and the good-time retro-pop of 1972 resurfaces on "Why Won't You Tell Me What."
Out of the context of 1972, simple lyrics like "it's the nighttime, baby / don't let go of my love" sound a little wan, but Rouse makes up for it elsewhere. "Middle School Frown" is one of Rouse's most vividly bittersweet story-sketches: over an arrangement that sounds like Phil Spector producing Aztec Camera, Rouse recalls a punker friend he betrayed back in 1983, when he was the new kid in town and afraid to be different. With "Winter In The Hamptons," elastic guitars and cascading rhythms run under a set of lines about vacationing sophisticates, culminating in the piercing, multilayered line "put on your hat / because the forecast is rain clouds."
Rouse's primary gift remains his easy-flowing melodies, which are coaxed along by his cherubic rasp. On "Streetlights," Rouse sounds like he's picking out a tune on the spot and following it through two or three note-perfect permutations, while "Saturday" drifts idly through ruminations on homesickness over a melodic line that's both humble and hummable. "Saturday" follows its sister song, "My Love Has Gone," with its litany of post-breakup moments—"I sleep with the TV on," Rouse admits—and after those two, Nashville sort of peters to a close. The final three tracks have a closet-cleaning feel; they don't really fit the charmingly doleful tone of the rest of the record, and the album-closer "Life" especially tries too hard to be a grand summation. But that's okay. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Rouse has maintained a workable pace of one short album roughly every 18 months, which reduces both the fuss and the filler. He doesn't dither much; he just checks in and moves on, as reliable as a railroad.