David Francey – The Broken Heart of Everything
Laker Music – 20 April 2018
In my review of David Francey’s last album, Empty Train (Laker Music, 2016) I justifiably gushed that he is “one of those rare artists, of any genre, whose writing and performance skills are of such a consistently high standard that he never drops the ball.” On this new collection, The Broken Heart of Everything, the gorgeous, rustic folk melodies and Francey’s lyrical prowess remain as reliably solid as they have been since his 1999 debut, Torn Screen Door, but with it comes the worrying news that it could be quite some time before the great man is again seen on the stages of Canada or further afield.
Almost two decades of hard touring and the physical ravages of an equal period of time as a construction worker toiling in all weathers have finally taken their toll on Francey’s voice. So, for the foreseeable future there will be no live performances, yet while during his absence from touring there is still his rich back catalogue to enjoy, it remains to be seen when the 63-year old Francey will be fit enough to even return to recording. Like any Francey fan, I am loath to consider that his health might dictate that this new release could be his recorded swansong, but time and rehabilitation will tell. I understand his intention is to take this new material across Canada in 2019, but meanwhile, epitomizing the saying that you can’t keep a good man down, as I type Francey is back on the road – but not to sing. Instead, with another string to his bow, in short bursts he is visiting Canadian cities and towns to display his paintings, aptly concluding in August with four days in the culturally rich port community of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. And if I did not harbour enough respect for Francey already, his haunting paintings (one of which graces the sleeve of Seaway, his 2009 collaboration with Mike Ford), are the creations of a man with colourblindness.
But what of The Broken Heart of Everything? Gathered over the course of 31 minutes are eleven songs – seven recently composed, and four from the vault, dating as far back as 2000. It opens with the poignant Poorer Then – the briefest of them all at just 1:47 – and as my wife and I lost six people from our world in 2017, it is a song to which we directly relate, and how. Backed by just the two banjos of long-time collaborators Chris Coole and Darren McMullen, upon receiving news of an ailing friend whose days are numbered Francey ponders the ‘inevitable turning of the wheel,’ and how much poorer the world is to us when we lose our loved ones, yet the song also celebrates those able to live life to the full.
Written on an overnight Transatlantic flight fifteen years ago, the love and aviophobia-themed Night and Morning sees Coole and McMullen switch to acoustic guitar and bouzouki respectively, while the brilliant young fiddler James McKie delivers a beautiful contribution. Here, a slight hoarse rasp to Francey’s usually warm, smooth voice hints at the difficulties he is dealing with. It is even more pronounced on the following ballad, The Flower of Colonsay, where the stark backing of only Mark Westberg’s acoustic guitar reveals a weaker Francey vocal than ever previously heard, but that said its vulnerability serves to amplify the delicacy of a truly beautiful song.
One thing I have always enjoyed about Francey is that he is an unabashed romantic, talking at length about his wife Beth onstage, and of course, writing songs about or for her. Written on the road in 2007, Lonely Road is the latest of these, boasting a direct lyric about how much he misses Beth and home as he heads back there from yet another spell on tour. Apart from the aforementioned musicians (except McKie) Francey is joined here by Coole’s fellow Foggy Hogtown Boys member, master fiddler John Showman, to contribute to a fine ensemble performance.
Another road song, I Know it Won’t, is not bad – Francey doesn’t do bad – but by his dizzying compositional standards it is, to these ears, merely okay. That it is followed by the exquisite Blue Sorrow and Then Some more than makes up for this rarest of blips. Triggered to pen it by youthhood memories of a beloved Hank Williams LP, it is Francey at his most tender, nostalgic best and he, Coole, McMullen, Westberg and Showman are joined on this number by Coole collaborator, bluegrass dobroist Ivan Rosenberg, for a telling contribution.
As I wrote in my review of Empty Train, one key to the appeal of Francey is his everyman ordinariness, and how he relates personal stories, memories, thoughts and emotions to the listener via powerful lyrical imagery, employing great poignancy or humour. In Come Sunday – the oldest song here, and the most Canadian lyric present in The Broken Heart of Everything – he recalls the “everyday moment of everyday life,” being dinner with his family, when the phone rang to deliver news of the death of a friend from the (ice) hockey team for which Francey played in goal. By way of explanation of how the lyric of such a song affects the average Canadian, I cannot possibly overstate the significance of hockey in Canadian society and culture; it is a unifying force, wound as tightly into the social fabric of this country as, say, football is in Spain or Italy, and songs about it are common. (Indeed, Francey has explored the topic before.) The April 6th Humboldt Broncos tragedy, in which sixteen young hockey players and team staff lost their lives when their bus collided with a semi-trailer truck on Saskatchewan’s Highway 35, was deeply felt right across this vast country. That so many young people were killed was obviously a terrible thing in itself, but that it was a hockey-related tragedy left scars on Canada’s soul that will take years to heal. Tribute songs have already been written or – by such as roots-rock star, Tom Cochrane – rewritten about the event, and this will undoubtedly continue for a long while yet.
Again accompanied only a gently picked acoustic guitar, in Where Harry Sat Francey tells the true story of Harry, a fallen World War II Lancaster bomber navigator, then joined again by McKie the whole band weave their magic on Only Love, the force that “rules us all, plain and simple.” The penultimate number is a rare cover, as Francey adds his version of the traditional Walking in Jerusalem to a list of performers including Mahalia Jackson, Bill Monroe, the Charlie Daniels Band and, to my mind responsible for the definitive version, the Golden Gate Quartet. Francey and friends’ light bluegrass-gospel version is quite lovely, then The Broken Heart of Everything comes to a playful close with the brief ditty Moon Over Melbourne, written in 2011 for an Australian friend’s birthday.
So there you have it – David Francey’s last album for who knows how long. As his 2018 Art Tour illustrates he will no doubt remain creatively active in some capacity, and return hopefully fitter than ever, but after such a strain on his voice for so long, as he approaches his mid-sixties can he regain the vocal projection required to effectively perform live as he once did? I suspect he would not even wish to if he felt he could not give it his all but, you know, although he has stated he will return next year, if it should prove too difficult for him Francey’s legacy is already more than sealed with almost two decades of wonderful live shows and an oeuvre of virtually flawless, quintessentially Canadian folk albums.
Good luck and get well soon, David!
The Broken Heart of Everything is out now. http://www.davidfrancey.com/BrokenHeart.html