At some point, life as one of music's best-kept secrets must get old. Josh Rouse probably reached that point a few years back. But at least listeners who've heard his bittersweet, openhearted pop know how good it is. Let the rest of them have their James Blunts.
Rouse has altered his approach by degrees over the years, never losing his heartland and '80s underground influences as he joined them to '70s orchestral pop and other sounds. After recording his 2005 album Nashville, Rouse packed it in and moved to Spain, but it sounds like he hasn't quite soaked up all the influences of his new home. Subtítulo feels simultaneously lovely and a little tentative, as if his music had a pleasant case of jetlag.
The songs, however, focus on severing ties, starting over, and finding new ways to feel good. There's a touch of Nashville (and Nashville) in the steel guitars of "It Looks Like Love," but they shore up a track about how new love and memorable sex can cut through seemingly inescapable sadness. On "Quiet Town," Rouse sings over an appropriately spare backing about the joys of living in a place where nothing much happens, while "Summertime" recalls past warm-weather pleasures ("watermelon, fingerbangin', Purple Rain, and bein' cool") that might come back even if "the feeling doesn't last that long." Some of Subtítulo's 10 tracks float from relaxed to unengaging, and the brief run time makes it feel even more like a transitional album, but the best songs make up for the drift, particularly "Givin' It Up," an unflinching and strangely cheery account of bottoming out on booze and kicking the habit. There's a note of selfishness to it too. "I hope you're happy about the way things worked out for me," Rouse sings, "'cause I feel better now." Sometimes even happiness comes with collateral damage.