Will Varley – Spirit Of Minnie
Xtra Mile Recordings – 9 February 2018
Following on from the breakthrough success of his last album, Will Varley’s taken the plunge and brought in a full band for Spirit of Minnie, his fifth. In addition to the move away from his stripped back one man and a guitar sound, he’s also cut back on the political commentary and humour in place of a serious focus on self-examination and relationships.
Not that the album opener, All Those Stars, is especially removed from the familiar, soulful folk sound of yore. A muted drum rhythm is pretty much the only augmentation (save for on the soaring chorus) as, in his engaging early Dylanish nasal whine, he delivers a reflective number about past actions, searchings and the impact on others as he reflects on how “Lucy says I have been drinking too much, looking for another kind of God.”
With its country musical inflections of the rolling rhythm, Seven Days equally concerns the connections with others and changes along the journey as he sings “we were young then but are we still young now?” The most immediate track, it even has a da da da chorus.
Screenplay, takes the mood right own, a minimal organ backing underscoring another song about the search for self-discovery and “running from the truth, running from the lies”. At times, it has an almost McCartneyesque feel. The circling melody of Breaking The Bread with its image of sharing is probably closest to his past work, a simple acoustic guitar and touches of piano and violin accompanying his melancholic romantic musings on the past and the path from the unfettered realms of childhood to the responsibilities of marriage on lines like “If your heart is an ocean then I am a sinking ship” and how, in a small town, “the things that hold you back are the same things that make you great.”
A slow waltz, Statues introduces steel guitar for another years passing number veined with regrets, broken dreams and love lost, “trying to find a new way of living” and waiting “to be delivered”, but still haunted by “ghosts in every door looking through my mind trying to find things to destroy” and wondering whether “time is a statue not a river.”
If that feels weighed down with sadness, the sparsely arranged title track belies the airy lightness of the guitars, keys and strings as he unfolds a story about heading out into the evening rain and hailing a cab to get to a bar and drink away his loneliness over an absent lover in whisky, sitting in silence in the backseat as the cabbie confides in him his memories and feelings of the brief time spent with the free-spirited titular Minnie as the drums and piano gather towards the muted close.
The album continues its downbeat path as mandolin makes an appearance on the slow march Let It Slide where on a refrain of “let it roll, let it roll, let it slide out of control” and once more infused with alcohol fumes, he sings in cracked voice how “someday we must embrace the madness that lives in our brains.”
The album closes with its two longest tracks. First up, at a few seconds short of six minutes, The Postman is another number overcast with dark clouds, gradually building in momentum and intensity, the title figure, “the shadow on the window-sill” becoming a universal symbol of “everyone who’s ever lived and ever will”, before it climaxes in a sonic vortex echoing the storm within the lyrics.
Finally, at six and a half minutes, pulsing with heartbeat percussion as strings buzz around and shrill organ makes its way into proceedings, The Insect sinks into almost self-loathing despair as he declares “my parents made me out of alcohol and boredom. I provided purpose, a distraction for them.” The song unfolds into a nihilistic observation of how we are born to wonder why and start out asking questions but, as days go, by discover the limitations of life, learn to repress things and lose our desire to explore and our sense of wonder, ending, like its predecessor, in a squall and the final thudding heartbeat before it simply stops.
Quite why he’s in such a despondent and resigned frame of mind is open to speculation, but while it may have produced his darkest album to date, even more so than Kingsdown Sundown, with the extra dimensions afforded by the fuller instrumentation, it’s also arguably also his strongest.
Will Varley UK Headline Tour
30 January BIRMINGHAM 02 Institute 3
31 January NOTTINGHAM Rescue Rooms
01 February LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
02 February EDINBURGH La Belle Angele
03 February MANCHESTER Club Academy
06 February SOUTHAMPTON 1865
07 February CARDIFF The Globe
08 February BRISTOL Trinity Centre
09 February LONDON Shepherds Bush Empire
photo credit: Brett Walker