Any regulars here will already understand my appreciation for Boo Hewerdine. As an all-round artist, he’s a songwriter par excellence, with an enviable canon of work, recognised and recorded by many of his peers down the years. He’s also a damn fine singer and none too shoddy on the guitar either, while anyone who has ever seen him will know that his often sad-eyed, highly emotive songs are likely to bring a tear to the eye, while his interlinking banter, often dead-pan-droll and desert-dry, will likely have you crying with laughter, or at very least, convulsed in a hearty chuckle in the next breath. Then, he’s also a sought after producer and accompanist, seemingly happy to play the foil to others musical excellence, regardless of his own career trajectory. He may not thank me for it, but I’d promote Boo forward as a national treasure, as in his own way, he’s greatly enhanced the UK’s music scene as a music maker of comprehensive skill. His songs often possess a deceptive power, a simple line or phrase of lyric or music that spins the world a little quicker, skips a heartbeat or plunges a sigh from deep within. And so it is with Open, yet another unassuming masterpiece that quietly slips alongside everything Boo has done with its indelible stamp of quality.
Okay! So, it would have to be going some to match the wall-to-wall excellence of the recent My Name In The Brackets. Boo delights in telling his audience, “I decided to release a greatest hits – without ever having had one.” Whilst that may be true in the strictest terms, as he’s never graced the official Top 10, I suspect there are at least a couple of indie chart successes. Besides, the number of sales attributed isn’t necessarily a mark of quality and anyone who grew up with TOTP will know that the UK’s Official Top 40 was routinely stuffed with utter tripe, with occasional surprises that offered glimmers of hope that the record buying masses weren’t completely witless. None of it, or very little of it, could hold a candle to the 18 tracks collated on Boo’s ‘best of’. Even in our world of properly good music, it still stands proudly above many if not most.
It seems odd to say it, but given Boo’s consistent quality and output, there hasn’t been an all-new studio album from him since 2009. While that can largely be explained by the collaboration with Brooks Williams, which has resulted in two albums and an EP in two years, under the State Of The Union moniker, and there’s also been the more recent collaboration with Kris Drever, plus a couple of singles, Open doesn’t actually completely buck the trend. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a filler, nor is it second rate by any means, but these recordings were made some years ago and sat in Boo’s collection of master tapes for some while.
The ‘when’ is explained by a couple of brief notes on the CD, the first of which says, “So Phil Mason mentioned the song Microfilm. An afternoon looking through boxes and I had the master in my hands. It sounded good and took me back there. I wanted you to hear it too.” The second is even more enigmatic in simply stating, “2003 (as far as I can tell)”. The ‘where’ is mostly Britannia Row studio with Rafe McKenna at the controls, with one track also recorded by Rob Jackson at his house. As for the ‘who’, mostly it’s simply Boo, his voice and his acoustic guitar, although he plays electric guitar and keys on the final track. There are also contributions form Rosalie Deighton who sings on four songs and Neill MacColl who adds instrumentation to 3, although the two extras only coincide on one cut. The ‘why’, is down to Boo’s label, Reveal Records, with Tom Rose agreeing that this collection should not go unheard.
There are two songs in common with My Name In The Brackets, although of course they are slightly different here. Geography features Rosalie’s harmonies, while Muddy Water adds some guitar atmospherics from Neill MacColl, but otherwise both of them are probably closer to how you would see Boo perform them, as he mostly plays solo when he tours his own material. In some ways you could treat this as a live CD it has that naturalistic, almost spontaneous sound caught in the moment of delivery and perhaps it mostly was. Of course if you went to see him, you certainly wouldn’t expect this sequence of songs as a set list and that adds the extra interest. While he has a vast catalogue of songs to call on and does mix things up, there are some firm favourites that his audience will naturally expect to hear, and the two already mentioned fall into that category.
And so do those songs we are hearing for the first time, because after all, there are another 11 tracks making their CD debut here. Every one of them earns their place too. I mentioned at the top that line or phrase and Name has a few opening with, “I can talk to you for hours, About nothing and everything, There’s grammar in the silence, And when I sigh… You understand.” As perfect as that sounds there’s still room for doubt as the chorus repeat the question, “Why won’t you say my name?” In Boo’s world the course of love never runs entirely true it seems, although the object of this amore is open to interpretation.
If that opener is ambivalent then Write is positively heartbroken as Boo sings, “Missing you it’s what I do these days,” but the instruction to, “Write to me,” sound as if they could be aimed at a child, more than an adult, as there are references to secret signs and poetry. The thread of separation continues through into 1981 # 2, although here the feeling of defeat and despair is linked to being stopped and searched on the streets. But Boo sings his way through the emotional bruising of, “I know I can’t have you and I’m used to that now,” with the decisive, “I’m going to love you anyway.” It seems hopeless, however, as Boo enquires, “And if I did a crazy thing, Burned my bridges, got my wings, Would you be waiting there, or would I just be one of the others.”
Like all of the best songs there’s an instant sense of honesty at work, as events and feelings are captured with little details that make them real. Of course it’s dangerous to presume that this is all autobiographical, but there is the sense that it comes from experience. The themes are consistent too and it sounds like the fall out of a relationship that has come unravelled, with the guilt and admonishment, the what ifs and wherefores.
Rags walks the tightrope between confession and redemption with “I’m not the only one who ever lost their way, I’m not the only one who ever went astray.” Microfilm is storing up, “All the memories that I’m not meant to keep, That burned to deep.” The bluesy Stone In My Shoe, with electric slide guitar added by Neill, admits, “I’m nothing every word you said is true, I’m just a stone in your shoe.” The title track, with its almost classical guitar motif, has the almost desperate appeal of, “Say it’s not too late, my heart is open.”
The brightly strummed Earthquake Bird, with its dancing mandolin line at least promises to raise the mood and there are fond and positive sentiments in, “Got a picture of my family, take it everywhere I go, I can hear a young boy laughing in another time zone.” More worryingly Boo also sings, “I feel older today, older than I ever did.” The real doubts resurface in Novelty as Boo Questions, “What will you do when the novelty is gone? Change the subject, move on, was it always this hard?” the answer to the latter question seems to be yes.
Perhaps at the end though there is the sense of finally letting go of the pain. In Sweetheart, Boo sings, ”I am drawn to those who reinvent themselves, move away, A changing voice, a wayward soul.” In the end he has to admit, “You are everything you said you would be.” Finally if North & South takes a sidelong glance at the emotional maps of Geography and still finds, “And there’s nobody here like you,” at least there is the sense of things being realigned as he acknowledges, “It took me a while, but I worked it out.”
Of course, both of the songs that you might already know fit the bill of emotional turbulence. Geography has the motel hell of the life of the touring musician as even the stars are upside down and there’s the admission, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, Think I know what’s wrong with me.” Meanwhile Muddy Water is the scene of more turbulence starting with “Don’t know what I’m gonna do, Everything is broken in two.”
As said above, it’s dangerous to assume autobiography, a songwriter can imagine a story and voice the life of another as well as any pen-smith, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of personal narrative written through this record. It’s even tempting to speculate that the memories and feelings contained within these songs even caused them to be buried away for a while as the embers of a love affair were simply too hot. But, fact or fiction, there is a strong cinéma vérité feel at work, and while a picture can paint a 1000 words, then a song can script a mental movie. The one in my head is a black and white, European melodrama that toys with some flawed, if well intentioned, leading characters as they struggle to make sense of their emotional lives and the consequence of their misunderstandings, mistakes and choices made. What will yours be?
Review by: Simon Holland
Open is released on 22 June 2015 via Reveal Records
Order it here
For full details of Boo Hewwedine’s upcoming tour dates visit: http://boohewerdine.net/
Photo Credit: Richard Ecclestone