"Veteran British songwriter and guitar sage" Michael's one of the most distinctive musical voices in the land, his supremely innovative guitar playing complementing his melancholy, often existential songwriting. His latest album. titled to commemorate a half-century of touring (and it might even be his 50th album too!), was released back in January, just four days before his 76th birthday. It's something of an occasion, too, in that it marks his first record with a full band in 18 years (since 1999's Twisted Road); this band comprises Steve Gunn, Nathan Bowles, James Elkington, Jimy SeiTang, Jason Meagher and Bridget St. John (the latter contributing some especially charismatic backing vocals). The album was recorded in America, with Steve Gunn at the helm, and is an astonishing achievement by any standards and one that's almost certainly going to be considered a career highlight.
Michael's songs celebrate "time past and time passing"; they provide a soundtrack to life's essential travelogue, his unique vocal delivery characterised by its gruff, world-weary drawl. Seven of the album's tracks revisit material from his extensive back catalogue, invariably radically reinterpreted but retaining the essential Chapman hallmarks. There's no hint of tired retread about these new versions, and Michael seems relaxed and completely at home, also quite reinvigorated, by the collaborative companionship of the surrounding musicians. In particular, there's a special chemistry at work in the creative interplay between the various guitars (Chapman, Gunn and Elkington). The engineered studio sound is full and detailed, and classic Chapman songs like The Mallard, Falling From Grace and Memphis In Winter in particular really benefit from the inventive arrangements and additional instrumental colourings. Also, That Time Of Night has never sounded more poignant than on this latest album. I can't help noticing some slight eccentricities of balance here and there, but the occasional textural opacity can also work positively for the atmosphere of the songs, for instance the fragile, reverb-ridden Navigation.
The remaining three tracks are new compositions. Pick of these, undoubtedly, is Sometimes You Just Drive, a desperate yet sanguine rumination from the apocalypse, as it were, couched in startling, poetic imagery. It espouses Michael's familiar time-honoured (and time-honouring) themes, in typically resilient and unsentimental fashion. Money Trouble is of lighter stock, a typically wry slice of country-tinged Americana, while Rosh Pina is a busy yet lyrical instrumental portrait.
Throughout this excellent set, the overriding impression is of Michael Chapman the tough survivor, fully qualified as ever and still with plenty to say. A word of praise too for the appealing monochrome package and artwork, which usefully includes lyrics and personnel credits.
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