With three previous studio albums and one live collection, I don’t know why Cameron Blake, a Michigan-based singer-songwriter, hasn’t crossed my radar before, especially given the potency of his lyrics. Like most songsmiths, he has his fair share of songs about relationships and matters of the heart, but what sets him apart is the way he has taken up the banner of 60s protest folk while far too many of his contemporaries have been content to just drop something into the contribution box from time to time.
Often drawing on religious or faith imagery, Blake directs his focus less at the big picture of social and political injustice, but rather at the intimate stories of those who suffer from it. Although past releases have, apparently, been full band productions, working with classically trained musicians, this time round on Alone On The World Stage he’s stripped everything back to the troubadour essentials of a guitar, the occasional piano and his voice, a rich, dark and slightly cracked baritone, evoking thoughts of Cohen, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin and Stan Rogers, allowing the words to ring clear.
The album opens with Rise and Shine, an objective view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the innocents caught up in it, juggling Biblical (tower of Babel) and contemporary (barbed wire coils) imagery of an endless cycle of broken olive branches and sleep broken by machine gun fire. Political affairs closer to home are addressed in several numbers. In 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy and the song of the same name, which likely owes a debt to Bruce Cockburn, offers snapshots of the fragile souls affected by its financial ruin, where “the auto plants sit heavy in the rain.” The fallout from the economic depression also informs Welfare Street, a quietly introspective elegy for those it has not only left crippled of their dignity (“told to leave the table like the beggar at the feast”) but also overdependent on a benefits system when “what’s the point of working when everything is free.”
Extending the theme, the Chapin-esque narrative of Kabuki Theatre with its echoey vocal and minor key piano accompaniment details the story of two old friends, one of whom now holds influence, but engages in nothing but political posturing and image-massage while “the wheels of the culture are burning.” On the other side of the coin, there’s also the fingerpicking folk blues North Dakota Oil, inspired by how the oil boom of 2006 has proven a mixed blessing as the state has had to deal with the mass migration it brought about, adopting personification with a chorus framed in imagery of seduction in its ‘take your time undressing me’ line.
The insights and observations are not all so politically focused. The complex imagery of the urgently sung Fireman Snowman winds around a father’s ambivalent relationship with his children; channelling Cohen, The Fisherman spins the ageing narrator’s tender chronicle of love; the album’s longest track, the slow strummed, symbolism-packed six minute Wild Blue Garden, essentially contemplates recognising a good thing when you have it and not trying to find the same qualities in new pastures; and, set to the music of an old silent film and recorded on a cheap upright, mournful piano ballad Home Movie (a number that suggests he may well have heard some Scott Walker) has an old man watching memories of his childhood holiday and wedding day, reminding him of his mistakes as much as his joys.
Elsewhere, his own memories of he and his wife riding a London bus with a bunch of rowdy young drunks gave rise to the bluesy Piccadilly Circus, a light hearted account of drinking away the missed romantic opportunity, while, reminiscent of Don McLean, the more specifically personal Ultrasound, is a tender love song to his then unborn daughter, the fingerpicked arpeggios representing the rapid heartbeats captured on the monitor as he sings about the scans as “pictures of a perfect love.”
The album ends with another love song, Fragile Glory, not to any one individual, but to a humanity as a whole, to the “barista cleaning out dishes in the sink, the old bag lady pulling a grocery cart, the lovers drawing their lives in the breath upon a window”, to all the bicycle headlights of mankind shining in the dark that, together, make up the “human hallelujahs orchestrating what we can’t control.” This one man show deserves a standing ovation.
Review by: Mike Davies
Alone On The World Stage is released on March 16th 2015 via Silver Slant Records.