"It's not the end of the world" is a thing people say to place inconveniences in perspective, a reminder that a rush-hour fender bender doesn't belong to the same category of catastrophe as nuclear or biblical apocalypse. Doomsday scenarios seem so far removed from the day-to-day that pop culture treatments of Armageddon — from Earth-atomizing special effects in big screen blockbusters like War of the Worlds, The Day After Tomorrow and, yes, Armageddon to end-times visions unfurled in the ominous Christian fundamentalist fiction of the Left Behind series — can make for violent, alien spectacles.
Leave it to Parker Millsap, one of the most arresting and puckish young singer-songwriters to emerge in the Americana scene this decade, to turn the jarring nature of apocalypticism on itself in the most enthralling way. The story goes that he started writing for his new album, The Very Last Day, in the midst of a bleak Oklahoma winter and, instead of seeking sunny diversion from his surroundings, embraced the grimness, binge-watching The Walking Dead and reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But Millsap didn't emerge from that season with quite the cataclysmic song cycle you'd expect.
In album opener "Hades Pleads," a frenetic jump blues tune, he channels the animalistic lust of Greek mythology's ruler of the underworld, panting, prowling and ravenous. Several songs later, in the genteel folk-pop number "Jealous Sun," Millsap sizes up the sun as a romantic adversary: "I can see how heaven could be lonely," he croons. "But can't he find someone who ain't my only?" His unsettling reading of the oft-recorded sanctified blues classic "You Gotta Move," with his swooping, theatrically extended howls and eerie ebbs, transforms the song from an exhortation to answer God's call into a warning to avoid a sinister divine force. In the vividly detailed narratives "Heaven Sent" and "Hands Up," the 23-year-old delves into the troubled minds of a preacher's kid who's just come out as gay and an ex-soldier with PTSD and mouths to feed, explaining how their experiences with religion have shaped, or even warped, their perspectives.
Then there are Millsap's wonderfully imaginative takes on the end times. His Appalachian folk tune "Tribulation Hymn" tells the story of a pitiful soul grappling with the realization that his sister's been raptured and he's been left behind. Millsap's performance is deliberately somber and knowing, removing the sting from a situation that could be a true believer's worst nightmare. The lurching, boozy title track proves what a prankster he can be, giving his listeners a droll, danceable doomsday prophecy. "When I see that cloud," he sings, "Gonna sing out loud, lift my hands and say, Praise the Lord! It's the very, very, very last day."
The sole fear to which Millsap cedes ground is far more down-to-earth: being without the person you love in the here and now. Maybe she's just heading out for the day ("Morning Blues"). Maybe he's driven to confess the extreme measures he'll take to make her happy, as in the doo-wop-inspired "Pining." Or maybe they both need affirmation that they're not alone in chafing at a conservative regional religious culture ("Wherever You Are").
By the end of these 11 tracks (which he recorded with his agile, rockabilly-redefining outfit and coproduced with Gary Paczosa), Millsap has pulled off a downright remarkable feat. He's confronted the power of collective belief and orienting myth, an endeavor made all the more affecting by his subversive use of language learned in his Holiness-Pentecostal past and his willingness to engage worldviews that provoke postmodern discomfort. He also brings ultimate and everyday concerns into conversation with each other. It's an apocalyptic thriller, all right — but one of an entirely different breed.