Hailing from New Jersey, Dave Murphy grew up listening to his father’s 60s record collection and WHN country radio, soaking up the music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. Listening to American Landscape, his fifth album, I suspect Guy Clark, Michael Murphey and Chip Taylor were in there too, indeed there’s times when his wearied, dusty delivery sounds a lot like Taylor’s.
Produced by double Grammy winner Ben Wisch and recorded with the Pariah Dogs, the band that backed Ray LaMontagne on God Willing & The Creek Don’t Rise, and with Lucy Kaplansky on backing vocals, Murphy describes the album’s songs as being thematically linked by the American experience, sharing a common sense of place in the American psyche.
Roughly translated, that means you get 10 stories that deal with emotional and physical distance, of love and loss, of being rooted and of having the urge to move on, sung in warm, relaxed style, the lyrics couched in simple, primarily acoustic arrangements of rolling melodies that evoke the wide open spaces of the title.
That said, it opens in the city on Brooklyn Street, shots and sirens breaking the night air, like some musical Weegee, he offers snapshots of a bereaved mother, a young brother and sister home alone in their cold apartment, a rag tag soccer team kicking around a ball on a dirt field, an old man on a stoop, a carefree couple holding hands and a woman who flies out to help the flood victims of Port-au-Prince. The same sea of humanity (young lovers, worn out travellers, migrant workers) can be found on the East Texas country of Fading Taillights, but the song’s focus is on the guy on the bus, leaving behind yet another in a string of forsaken lovers.
The ghost of Old No 1 era Guy Clark (Desperadoes Waiting For The Train, especially) looms large over Miss The Bus, a song that references Guthrie, Dylan and Elvis that’s essentially about how, while we’re all busy trying to get in on the next big deal or trend, we forget that it’s love that keeps the wheels rolling.
But then, if we don’t embrace the White Lines and Skylines, we’re condemned to be stuck in a small town with the “coffee cups and pick-up trucks and faded beauty queens”, where time never moves on, one of the guys who’s always down the bar watching TV, until “they dress you up in your Sunday best and they put you in the ground.”
Dreams come and gone, memories of better times, the winds of change that blow restless souls down life’s highway, never able to return home, inform Murphy’s melancholic Carveresque narratives, whether it’s the man with the tarnished wedding ring who’s lost touch with himself in My Forgotten Life, Rochester’s lament for the faded glory of the titular Ontario city, or the gambling addiction metaphor of self-destruction that drives the bluesy Pay To Play. Then there’s the man in Voice Inside Your Head who, returning to his abusive father’s funeral, remembers leaving home behind for New York and “a thousand disappointments”, except here, for once, Murphy allows light to find its way through the cracks in the lines “you found some peace, you’ve got a family of your own, grace and forgiveness.”
All the songs tug at the exposed threads of your emotions, but perhaps none more so than the album’s speak-sing Taylor-like centerpiece, You and Morphine, organ drone introducing a devastating first person account of a someone, possibly an addict (“I guess I made my own bed”), whose body is wracked with pain “like a thousand jagged knives”, a love song to the only things that bring relief, the drug and the cavalry that comes with their thumb on the plunger.
Murphy says it turned out to be the album he always wanted to make. I would heartily recommend that you explore the scenery and share in his triumph.
American Landscape is out now.