A photograph of a silhouette: a man in a baseball cap and winter coat, knee-deep in snow, axe over his shoulder, face raised to the sparse winter trees and sky before him. It’s the cover of Neil McSweeney’s latest album ‘A Coat Worth Wearing’. It’s a Bruegel shot by a French new-wave photographer. A hint at something darker, lone, beautiful, unovert but political. Grown up and set for surviving.
This album is a departure for McSweeney. Gone, the somewhat unserious, peppy production of previous albums. A full band album, part-written on the hoof with the band in rehearsal, not too polished, and more alive for it, it was developed and worked out in part at The Bowerhouse – the warm, intimate unplugged folk venue nestled just off the Tonbridge Road in Maidstone, featuring a cast of musicians who play regularly in the space: Lucy Farrell, Emily Portman, MG Boulter. Their presence has evidently been a guiding hand.
‘Atlantis’, a song about childhoods spent and lost in ramshackle domestic gardens has long been a live favourite, delivered with a masculinity, pace and yearning. Here, it’s more a gentle Celtic folk ballad, harmonies creating the kind of unease you’d normally find in a Portman lyric.
There’s something way more akin to the compelling, raw, authentic Neil you get in a live show on this album. Voice untethered, guitar lightly finger-picked, or his Gibson unleashed to threaten 50s tinged fury on ‘The Call’.
McSweeney is back at The Bowerhouse for one night only to showcase the new album. Stripped bare of everything except guitar and voice, not even a light vocal mic to warm his bass notes, it’s an entirely different beast. The songs breathe differently and lyrics take on new meaning in the sparser style of delivery. He intersperses older material with the new tracks: ‘Wonder In The Making’, one of the best songs about parental love every written, becomes a companion piece to the childhood described in ‘Atlantis’. ‘Postcards” anger is a simmering prelude for the full-steam roil of ‘The Call’.
‘Danse Macabre’ sees McSweeney singing of a wolf in the kitchen, helping himself to all your possessions. It’s ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ thrown clattering down the stairs of a 50s dive bar. So different from the album version, which starts with hints of Husky Rescue-style dreamscape before his clear voice cuts through to break the reverie. It’s a warning about the times in which we live.
‘Old Glory Blues’ is almost bluegrass, the yellow-tinged clay a light nod to Gillian Welch’s ‘Red Clay Halo’. ‘There’s tea in the pot, sugar in the bowl, and half the world’s ours from digging the coal’. It’s got dirty fingernails and a crack in its knuckles you can’t quite trust against the hint of homely lyrics. The smell of scorched dust seems to rise from beneath his feet as he sings. No slide guitar needed (although you will find a lovely one on the album).
‘Forlorn Hope’ makes the violence of humanity palpable on the album, but live without amplification, it’s more weary and much more vulnerable. Everything is much more vulnerable. ‘London Road’ tonight has a tenderness more akin to The Sundays or Roddy Frame than the kerb-kicking swagger of a plugged-in McSweeney.
Back to ‘Atlantis’. On it, he sings: ‘I never shall return. I lost the chart and bearing. Since I sailed my heart has failed to find a coat worth wearing.’ On the strength of these songs, the opposite is true. He’s back, and very much on course.
For details of tour dates go to www.neilmcsweeney.com. ‘A Coat Worth Wearing’ is out now on Hudson Records.