Steve AshleySteve Ashley
Album: This Little Game
Label: Market Square
Tracks: 12

Steve, master songwriter with an impressive and exhaustive track record, most recently the subject of an excellent biography (Dave Thompson's Fire And Wine, named after what's probably his best-known song), is here releasing his first album of new material in seven years. Worth that long wait? Most certainly! It sure proves Steve's lost none of his touch, and his gift for memorable songmaking is undiminished. Furthermore, as those of us who cherish his comparatively scarce live gigs will testify, Steve doesn't need complex layers of sound or ear-grabbing musical arrangements in which to clothe his creations - his trusty Guild acoustic guitar (which has just celebrated 40 years on the road with him!) will do very nicely thankyou. And so, This Little Game is an unapologetically straight-down-the-line unadorned voice-and-guitar offering, recorded entirely unpretentiously at various domestic locations in Cheltenham between 2010 and 2014. Although in the past Steve's been backed by hand-picked instrumentalists, from string sections to various band lineups, his affable style is arguably best appreciated in a no-frills setting, where his extensive experience at "this little game" of songwriting is heard to bring real dividends at intimate close-quarters.

Actually, as we learn here, This Little Game is in this case more accurately describing the game of life, portrayed in a song-cycle that's also to all intents and purposes a life-cycle. Its individual songs are grouped into "movements" within life's preordained chronology, which begins its natural sequence with the charming little welcome-all-ye of the ostensibly simple paean-cum-toast Here's To All The Babies (I wouldn't be surprised if Roy Bailey's already got his ear on this one!) which mirrors childlike perspectives and observational naïvete yet harbours deeper concerns through the veneer of innocence. After this, of course, the growing-up process begins almost at once with Playground Days, here in the guise of a percipient memoir couched in easy colloquialisms and chummy nostalgia but always darkened with minor-key caution and the colder, though still curiously forgiving, hindsight brought by old-age. Attitudes and affections are expounded and explored on People In Love, another example of almost too self-evident sentiments and obvious rhymes that in lesser hands might well be taken for clichéd but here emerges as honest, pure and touching. A weather front and its effect on two lovers provides the verbal link to the next track, Rainsong, a timely rewrite of the B-side of the sadly-never-issued 1969 Tinderbox Farewell Britannia single, which most assuredly does not merit a fate of archive oblivion. The memorably chirpy Summer's Come Again then brings into the frame humankind's relationship to the seasonal cycles of nature, expressing this in quintessentially English poetic invention. The complexion of the album then changes as humanity gets a not-so-gentle awakening in the form of That's Why, Steve's considered response to the current crop of "war-commemorative" songwriting, which forms a harrowing centrepiece to the album. Although the even-toned guitar arpeggios appear to offer consoling consonances, the mood is restless, unsettling and non-reassuring, as the emotions of vulnerability and desperation rise above the defiance of Steve's stance. Why on earth should we comply with the war cries, in other words? (but at the same time there should be no need for undue grandstanding or soapbox posturing either).

Time To Heal preaches what we all should practise but without being preachy; it's Steve's plaintive plea for tolerance and understanding, structured rather like an homage to the 60s protest song (which I guess some may consider it resembles in demeanour and delivery). Here, Steve's adopted role as the eternal troubadour-cum-trouper links us to the disc's next item, Be True To You, a sanguine and knowing exposition of the "old one-two", functioning almost as a kind of interlude before the final segment of the album, which might well be viewed as a series of intimations of mortality. The first song in this elegiac sequence, Just Like The Leaves, again spotlights the sheer transience of "this little game" that is life, its imagery also tellingly referencing the traditional song Life Of A Man along the way. The next pair of songs, The Last Deeds Of Love and In Your Heart, shift the focus back from the universal to the personal, examining the impact of the essential quality of love that guides us through our lives right to the end, the last rites. Harking back to the themes of tolerance and compassion from the earlier stage of the album (People In Love), we come to the life-affirming conclusion that memory is "built to last and pass the test of time". As ever, though, Steve's optimism is tempered with an acute awareness of man's foibles; this commonsense observation is perhaps most compellingly and elegantly expressed through the album's final song, All Will Be Clear. Haunting in every sense of the word and quite literally inhabited by ghosts, it brings the song-cycle round full-circle, while dead men's lies "just fall away" as "to their resting place we're heading".

Steve's got a real gift for producing songs that make their mark almost subliminally over time and exposure and yet rely on immediate accessibility and deceptively simple ideas that are sometimes bordering on over-obvious, these allied to melodies that shift and weave unpredictably yet possess a predictability that's more an inevitability, a quality one finds rooted in the idiom and models of English traditional folksong. Steve's finely honed craftsmanship might on the surface appear casual, as if thoughts are tossed conversationally round the ring, but the seemingly effortless nature of the finished product flatters to deceive, and the final word will always go to Steve's right-on integrity, of which the intensely masterful This Little Game provides a further superb, and unqualified, example.

David Kidman