James Summerfield – Doubt
Aargh Records – 5 January 2018
Following on from 2015’s somewhat experimental (yet still highly accessible) Analogue Tales which combined song and spoken word, Birmingham’s indie-Americana-blend singer-songwriter James Summerfield returns for his sixth full-length release. Doubt is arguably his most confident and wholly satisfying to date. His recent entry into fatherhood provides the album’s opener, Nightingale, a lush and dreamy waltzing love song to his baby son (a line about fielding the spew nicely offsets any gooey sentimentality), enrobed in strings courtesy of Katharine Griffiths and complete with some gurgling samples.
If you detect a touch of the West Coast in the opener, it’s even more evident on the sunkissed double-tracked Hotel Marrakech which appears to be about getting sized up by one of his heroes (“Checked me a 180 turn, to make certain she’d consider being mine”) from the stairs of the Royal Mansour. It’s a lyrically impressionistic song which, in places, calls to mind fuzzy treated vocals of the CS&N via Lennon.
From Morocco, it’s off to Japan with The Golden Token, a gently rippling rhythm and cascading melody providing the framework for a lyric with Summerfield as the bemused visitor in the back streets of the Akihabara area of Tokyo observing the mysteries of the gaming arcades with references to Sega Sam and Pearl Pachinko as well as Japanese idol girl group AKB48 named after the area.
Things take both a thematic and mood swing with the slow, pulsing druggy psychedelia of Out Of The Zone with its treated gauze and narcotics vocals, a dark stream of consciousness musing on identity and our lack of control over life. It’s followed by a close musical companion piece, Another Country Duet, featuring pedal steel and Immi Paterson on harmonies, a song about getting older, discarding the “bad apples” you hung around with and, basically, forging your own existence and not caring what others think because “There’s an art, to being socially awkward. There’s an art to being uninteresting.”
The laid back close harmonies West Coast feel returns for the 108 seconds of Take, but its lyrics about how “there’s a killer in everyone” incline to the darker visions of Neil Young rather than his sometime cohorts.
A month too late or eleven early, either way, I’ll Try Not To Ruin Christmas is guaranteed to put a damper on the festive spirit. Simon Fox and Gurdon Thomas provide the brass colours for a deeply sad and poignant number sung in the persona of someone whose world’s fallen apart and doesn’t want his mental health and depression to spoil everyone else’s celebrations, asking Santa to put him back together with “a chemical balance rolling ’round in my head.”
Thankfully, the album then lets some light in with the plaintively personal and redemptive SLO, Paterson’s harmonies, strings and acoustic guitar adorning a lullaby paean to a simple, joyful life lived:
With no one to conform to
With no one to aspire to
But you and who you chose to
Then start a family
It’s family – or specifically parenthood – too that fuels The Best I Can, a playful mid-tempo country-pop jog looking to the years ahead, spending the 60 credits you’re allocated (a university degree reference. I’d suspect), living to the full and wanting his son to stay with them as he and mom grow older, “help us to feel alive.”
The album Closes on a reflective five-minute instrumental and a return to the Hotel Marrakech Lobby with pedal steel and cello.
Doubt is both a melancholic and uplifting album that, rooted in Summerfield’s own experience and journey, at times, puts me in mind of The Lilac Time. Doubtless, your life will be the emptier without it.