Having already recently released a new Westies album with his wife, Heather Horton (who provides harmonies and fiddle here), the Chicago born singer-songwriter Michael McDermott has taken full advantage of his new clarity and focus to follow-up with his 10th solo album Willow Springs, his first in four years. Following a self-destructive period of drink, drugs, debt and self-doubt fuelled by being hailed as the new Springsteen with his 620W.Surf debut only to be written off four years later, McDermott took stock, cleaned up and, drawing on the support of his wife and, later, the inspiration of his young daughter, he re-emerged in 2008 with the emotionally raw Noise From Words, following on with Hey La Hey and Hit Me Back. Named for the small town where and his family now live, and where he confronted the turmoil in his life, including the death of his father, becoming a parent and the stark realisation of mortality, it’s his strongest post-rehab album yet.
It opens with the autobiographical and confessional six minute plus title track, McDermott in full alliteration-heavy early Dylan mode, before moving on to the uptempo strum, gospel handclaps and tumbling chords of These Last Few Days, an acknowledgement of his self-destructive past that manages to namecheck Judas, Godot and Sisyphus as he sings about having “a tourniquet around my heart to keep it from falling apart.”
That live fast, die hard sensibility spins out into the highly Springsteen-esque Getaway Car’s blue collar story of a loser on the run from the law (“Tonight I’m bound for glory, drinking lightning from a jar”) while the broodingly menacing Soldiers Of The Same War with its bared teeth guitars could be taken at apparent face value of men (“warriors or mutineers”) caught up in never ending conflicts or, at a deeper level, addressing how they’re attracted to that internal darkness “trading our emotions for some souvenirs.”
Like the best writers, McDermott can tell a straightforward story or one layered with meaning, speaking in other voices to disguise his own and there’s much here that clearly come from a very personal place, such as the songs of change and transformation like the harmonica wailing, guitar and piano ringing roots-rock Half Empty Kind of Guy reflection on how hard it is to put your demons behind you and embrace the light after spending so long in darkness as he sings “I can’t see the heavens, I can only see the sky.” It’s there too on the fingerpicked Folksinger where, somewhat evocative of Gordon Lightfoot, where one moment he’s playfully singing about writing a big hit and hanging out with Bono and at another is starkly serious as a soldier with only vague recollections of who he was before the war.
On piano ballad Butterfly, he revisits the depths and wonders how he ever made it out alive while the stripped back piano and guitar strum of One Minus One reflects on a relationship where he’s the ticking time bomb in a “cold and angry chair”. But, perhaps inevitably, after all the pain, he cherishes the tenderness. Be that of finding new love in the upbeat, celebratory soulful and brass burnished Let A Little Light In or the dobro accompanied Willie Rain, a choppy rhythm love song to his daughter that manages to overcome the tweeness of her “I love you daddy” intro.
As mentioned earlier, one of the storms McDermott had to go through was the death of his father, something he addresses on the softly sung Shadow In The Window, a gradually building seven minute song of regret and the need for atonement that, in its own way, is as emotionally devastating as Springsteen’s My Father’s House.
While his father’s passing is also at the heart of the album’s final song, What Dreams May Come, given the journey back from hell, it’s only fitting that it should end on a note of hope as, again dedicated to daughter and standing shoulder to shoulder with the best of Bruce, on the back of tinkling piano and guitar it swells to a moment of epiphany to end on the lines “Take my hand, babe, I’ve got a plan, our lives have really just begun. Hold on, what dreams may come.” Take his hand and walk with him.
Willow Springs is released 22 July 2016 via Pauper Sky Records
Photo Credit: Sandro