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Neil McSweeney Neil McSweeney
Album: A Coat Worth Wearing
Label: Hudson
Tracks: 9

To tell the truth, this one’s taken me a while to get into. It’s the fourth record by this Scottish-born, Sheffield-based singer-songwriter, but (criminally) the first I’ve heard – although Neil clearly has his advocates, for he’s managed to get tour support for (among other luminaries) Richard Hawley and Bellowhead… Anyway, it’s quite hard to get much of a perspective at first, for all that the album’s plainly the product of an experienced and assured talent, a man who has his own special worldview and his own distinctive mode of vocal expression. Neil also proves himself something of a musical chameleon, in that he’s master of many styles within the “contemporary English s/s” bracket but sounds nothing like the standard guitar-toting latter-day troubadour.

And yet… that’s still not the half of it. For it’s temptingly easy, especially on first acquaintance, to kindof luxuriate in the sound of Neil’s voice and the sometimes incredibly cranky instrumentation, get carried along the temporal continuum and let the curious ambiguous lyricism of the texts drift on by (or beyond). And so I’m glad he’s included a booklet of the lyrics, for there’s times when I’m so drawn in by the sound that I can’t quite make head nor tail of things without the physical act of reading along, following Neil’s thought processes.

Opening track Old Glory Blues, with its whining steel and clucking banjo and jittery percussion, is a peculiar twist on old-time riddle-me-ree, while its successor Forlorn Hope is a darkly reverberant rant set to heavy-duty clanking beats and a distorted riff. Forgive me for sounding fanciful, but it conjures a vision of Jim Morrison cast adrift in Robert Plant’s shape-shifting sound-world. Onward to track 3, which is so completely different: Danse Macabre is a sparsely scored, bleakly claustrophobic ambient would-be-fairytale realisation voiced by a vulpine. The sombre pace continues on through the ostensibly pastoral yet disconcertingly bleep-ridden Land Of Cockaigne (another place called England?) and the awkwardly eerie, dystopian Atlantis (whence comes the disc’s title). Even eerier is Strangers Of Maresfield Gardens, with its less-than-half-heard imagined “conversation”, keening saw, industrial electric guitar and “cutting wind that blows right through you”, and its elusive, allusive lyric that obstinately refuses to reveal much beyond its fragile, pseudo-Freudian byline. The rocking, almost comforting motion of Waving Not Drowning, with its charming if enigmatic vocal counterpoints, gives way to the close-miked intimacy of Night Watchman (on this song and Atlantis especially, I caught unexpected echoes of Jon Boden in Neil’s singing, his phrasing and acute vocal control). The twangy, pacey tumbling rushing electric-indie of The Call, in its outburst of ominous, desperate anger (sort-of Nick Cave in a way, I thought), seems to drag the listener out of any possible comfort zone; the storm finally breaks maybe, but the air hasn’t cleared. (“I’m finished. What’s next?” is indeed the key question).

Throughout the album in fact, the shifting, slightly opaque feel to Neil’s writing isn’t entirely allayed by the calmly unsettling musical settings, even though the production’s in the expert hands of Andy Bell and the supporting cast includes M.G. Boulter on lap and pedal steel and guitars, Thomas Lenthall on piano, Wurlitzer, organ and synths, Ben Nicholls on basses, Lucy Farrell on saw and violin, Sam Sweeney on percussion and there’s vocal support from Emily Portman and Lucy. There’s a considerable frisson to the almost-entirely-live-in-the-studio recording too.

This is an extraordinary album, one which amply repays careful, close listening – and on so many levels. But it also still leaves an unsettling feeling – even on umpteenth playthrough. And I’m also much minded to go and investigate Neil’s previous work.

David Kidman