Monday, February 20, 2017

Michael Chapman: 75 Into 50

The road goes on forever, Gregg Allman sang in Midnight Rider, and that's the feeling I get from listening to Michael Chapman's glorious new night drive of an album. Called 50 in celebration of that many years of professional music-making, it feels like every lived minute is somehow contained in its 10 songs, including the one questing instrumental. Chapman's voice is a bit shot, all husky burr and weary bite, but he's been mastering its unconventional qualities since his first album and is completely in control of its contours here.

About half of these songs are remakes from earlier Chapman albums, but that hardly matters if you are a new listener - and I expect he'll get more than a few of those with 50. Some of them will be drawn by American guitar maven Steve Gunn, who produced the album and assembled the expert and empathic crew of players who surround Chapman with airy but sturdy skeins of acoustic and electric stringed instruments and keyboards. Chapman's longtime collaborator Bridget St. John, a British folk luminary herself, is also here, limning his dry voice with her burnished gold on several tracks.

The old and new songs combine to timeless effect, many of them lyrically reminiscent of Bob Dylan in apocalyptic mode: "And the preacher comes in from the cold, his wisdom to disperse. I listen to his sermon, but he's making matters worse" (The Prospector). Or "Trees caught fire, sky turned red, fish in the river turned up dead" (Sometimes You Just Drive).

Chapman also has a nice sideline as a poet of failure. One of his greatest songs is called It Didn't Work Out, and another classic tune turns it's title, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, into a wry sing-along. We get some of that here, too, in That Time Of Night: "When nothing seems to turn out right, and dreams can drift right out of sight, because it's that time of night." And the failures are not only personal. Chapman has called this his "American album," and I think that is not only a reference to the provenance of his fellow musicians or where it was recorded.

Though of English origin himself, that the 75-year-old Chapman is a keen observer of life on this side of the pond becomes very clear on songs like Memphis in Winter: "They say that Jesus saves, but I see none of that down here. I just see people with the hunger, I see people with the fear. And I can see the jungle growing, hobos huddled in the steam. Are they just some hungry mouths to feed or the bitter end of the dream?"

Or I could just be projecting my own current perspective on some of these songs - perhaps in 10 years it will all sound very different, reading as just good poetry instead of feeling ripped from the headlines. 50 is an album for the ages in any case, and I am sure I will still be listening further down the road in my own journey.

You May Also Enjoy:
Out Of The Past 2013: Reissues, Etc.
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Out Of The Past
Best Of 15: Out Of The Past

P.S. Read my post-Grammy thoughts in Mass Appeal: Beyoncé, The Grammys And The Guitar Myth

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