‘A Coat Worth Wearing’ is Neil McSweeney’s fourth full-length album and the second release for new imprint Hudson Records which gave us The Furrow Collectives Wild Hog. It was produced by award-winning folk producer Andy Bell.
McSweeney’s songs combine the emotional depth of the Romantic poets with the weird and wonderful detail of Dutch genre painting. He is a true one-off.
Scotland-born, Sheffield-based singer songwriter Neil McSweeney has quietly put together an impressive run of albums since his 2006 debut Remember To Smile. That first record garnered much acclaim and a fair bit of radio play (Radio 2 and 6 Music both took a liking to single Postcards). Second album Shorelines (2009) won him a support slot with fellow Sheffield act Richard Hawley, and Cargo (2013) saw him attract collaborators as diverse and well-known as American blues/jazz guitar virtuoso Brooks Williams, Bellowhead fiddle player Sam Sweeney and the Furrow Collective’s Lucy Farrell.
What you get from McSweeney – his unique selling point, if you will – is his voice. While his musicianship and his songwriting fall squarely into the contemporary folk bracket, his singing is something else entirely, something decidedly more soulful. Indeed, The Guardian described him in 2007 as sounding like a male version of Tracy Chapman, a claim which only seems fanciful if you haven’t heard his songs.
A Coat Worth Wearing is his fourth full-length release, and on first listen sounds as comfortable and satisfying as its title suggests, and with that voice, equally lulling and rousing, it would be easy to wrap yourself up in the pure sound of these songs. But that would do a disservice to Neil McSweeney’s writing, and to the superb cast of musicians he has once again gathered around himself. Opening track Old Glory Blues immediately steeps us in something much more unique and universal than the standard troubadour fare. The lyrics are at once human and elemental, and the chorus almost has the ring of a shanty about it. It is stirring stuff, a world away from your average earnest young man with an acoustic guitar.
And it soon becomes fully apparent that A Coat Worth Wearing is a full band effort. Forlorn Hope has a blues rock chug about it, more Nick Cave than Nick Drake, with McSweeney’s vocal delivery owing as much to Jim Morrison as to anything from the folk tradition. And the darkness is palpable – the twisty, wiry electric guitar solo that kicks in towards the end of the song would not be out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack.
The wavering, treated piano chords that open Danse Macabre promise something even darker and the lyrics don’t disappoint: McSweeney introduces a world in which life presents a kind of existential catch-22. It is ambiguous and unsettling, all the more so thanks to the way it drifts off after five minutes, open-ended and unresolved. Musically it is full of space but at the same time somehow claustrophobic, and is an excellent showcase for the atmospheric qualities of the upright bass, here provided by Ben Nicholls, a long-time collaborator of Seth Lakeman.
But A Coat Worth Wearing is not all doom and gloom. Land Of Cockaigne is full of hope, a mostly acoustic appeal to a better future in a fabled land of pleasure and plenty. Even here, though, McSweeney refuses to play it completely straight, dotting the song with unexpected synthy bleeps that point to a different kind of future to the pastoral, bucolic one of the lyrics. But where Land Of Cockaigne talks of promise and possibility, Atlantis shows us the other side of the coin, the failed dream. It progresses on a bed of wonderfully scratchy, difficult sounds that cut through the sweetness of the song’s male-female vocal harmonies. If Land Of Cockaigne is a Pieter Bruegel painting, Atlantis is more like something by Bosch, complete with surreal and vividly expressed animalistic imagery: ‘chaperoned by crawling lice’, ‘a peasantry of lazy bees.’ These turns of phrase alone mark out McSweeney as a lyricist of extraordinary and singular talent.
The Strangers Of Maresfield Gardens imagines a conversation between General Patton and Sigmund Freud and manages to transpose the absurd, gruesome imagery of Bosch onto history-wide canvass whilst simultaneously examining the nature of madness and the folly of war. It is something of a tour de force, and its scope is huge, but McSweeney manages to pull it off with ease. The use of recorded speech adds a hauntological edge to the sound, while the fractured production, courtesy of Andy Bell, is perfectly suited to the subject matter.
Waving Not Drowning provides a moment of positivity, an imagistic account of an almost zen-like state set to a beautiful downwardly spiralling piano line. Once again female backing vocals (provided throughout the A Coat Worth Wearing by Lucy Farrell and Emily Portman) give the song a literal sense of balance that is reflected in its lyrics.
The closest McSweeney gets to the quotidian concerns of the average singer songwriter is in the gentle acoustic ballad Night Watchman. It is here, when his singing barely gets above a whispered croon, and the musical backing is minimal that you begin to appreciate fully the control he exerts over his voice, and the depth it carries. Night Watchman is ostensibly similar to the wryly observed stories of everyday relationships often served up by McSweeney’s old mucker Richard Hawley, but even here he can’t resist the odd moment of transcendence – his narrator is ‘weightless’, ‘on a fragrant ground of burning leaves. Always there is the possibility of being elevated beyond the mundane into something ecstatic (or else something terrifying).
On the final track, The Call, McSweeney rails against ‘Google gurus’ and ‘crooked captains of industry’, with an almost punkish energy and a menace that once again recalls Nick Cave (as does the gleefully squalling guitar solo), but there is a hint of positivity as well, a sense that creativity can be a force for good, both in a societal sense and in a personal one. It is this that gives McSweeney his distinctive appeal. He reminds me of the romantic poets: Like Wordsworth or Shelley his relationship to his art has a spiritual aspect to it, rooted in the emphatic epiphanies offered by the natural world, but like Blake, he has a darker side, a rebellious streak and a decisive need to push for positive change. It is a rare songwriter that can combine these elements over the course of an album or even a career. McSweeney often manages to do it in the space of a single song.
A Coat Worth Wearing is released via Hudson Records on 10 March 2017
Order it via Hudson Records (CD, Vinyl & Ltd Edition Red Vinyl)
Video Premiere: Neil McSweeney – Danse Macabre (The Hudson Sessions)
Neil McSweeney – The Call
Neil McSweeney: A Coat Worth Wearing Tour Dates
WED 8 MARCH – Biddulph Arms, Stoke On Trent, UK
FRI 10 MARCH – Queens Social Club, Sheffield, UK
MON 13 MARCH – Green Note, Camden, UK
FRI 17 MARCH – Labour Hall, Retford, UK
SAT 18 MARCH – Café INDIEpendent, Scunthorpe, UK
THU 23 MARCH – The Musician PubLeicester, UK
SAT 25 MARCH – The BowerHouse, Maidstone, UK
FRI 31 MARCH – Hermon Chapel, Oswestry, UK
SAT 01 APRIL – Garmon View House Concert, Conwy, UK
More details and ticket links via www.neilmcsweeney.com
Also Read Neil’s Blog: acoatworthwearing.com