Michael McDermott – Out From Under
Continental Song City – 25 may 2018
It’s a huge compliment of course, but after a while you can probably get fed up of being likened to Bruce Springsteen, suggesting, as it does, that this defines your music. Reviews of Michael McDermott’s albums regularly trot out the comparisons, and I’m as a guilty as anyone, but this time around it’s almost as if he determined to underline his range and variety.
As such, it opens in striking style with the noirscape sounds of Cal-Sag Road, an alcohol-fuelled murder ballad that draws on his own battles with the booze as, riding a steady drumbeat and sung insalubrious tones, the narrator tells of being picked up by two girls in a bar, only for things to get hazy and sobering up to find them both dead, hauling the bodies off the reservoir and puncturing their lungs so they don’t float. As the song ends him with him singing “you won’t see me again/Unless I’m gettin’ drunk again”, there’s a chilling suggestion this might not have been the first time.
From here, it takes a swerve into more New Orleans good time territory with the banjo and horns shaped Gotta Go To Work where Randy Newman meets John Sebastian. It’s another quasi-autobiographical number in as much as it draws on his years spent hanging out with his best friends, booze and drugs, here the protagonist a blue collar 9-5 stiff who fantasises about telling his boss to kiss his ass and slipping him a Mickey Finn and blows off steam with the bottle on a weekend, living “like Caligula on Saturday night Sunday, forgiven by the Lord.”
He then hits a funky southern blues groove, filtered through a Dylan lens and a brief incursion of treated vocals, with Knocked Down, looking back on 20 years with a monkey on his back, living like a dog and “strung out in dirty hotel rooms”, before deciding to choose life rather than let life choose him and emerging as a survivor because “Sometimes a little leak of light/Is all you need.”
There’s deeper lyrical shades of Highway 61 Revisited era Dylan on the soulful shuffle of Sideways, another song about the struggle to escape the person you are and become the person you want to be as he sings “Depression comes in many forms/Wears many a mask/It will always come to find you/You don’t ever have to ask/It comes in pills and powders/They serve it in a glass/ Something sent me sideways. It knocked me on my ass.”
And then there’s Rubber Band Ring, a horns blasting 50s rock n roll infused love song to Heather Horton, his wife and salvation (he actually bought her a rubber band ring in Italy) that extends an invitation to a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes party complete with a Clarence Clemons-like sax solo. Which, of course, eventually brings me round to those Springsteen references. They remain apposite and he’s not hiding them, just putting them into a wider context.
Sad Songs is the first, a soaring uptempo anthemic number (albeit also with hints of Tom Petty) that McDermott has said harks back to his self-involved period and how a born-again ex-drug buddy’s declaration that he’d pray for him led him to metaphorically realise he was fed up of “singing all these sad songs.”
One of the album’s particular highlights is This World Will Break Your Heart, a simple piano and acoustic guitar number about how we turn a blind eye to the sufferings of others, the old man at the counter unable to feed himself, the woman who lost her baby in the final month of pregnancy, and how we should be grateful for whatever happiness we find.
It’s followed by the drum thumping, twangsome guitar and electric surge of the title track with its Badlands musical drive and Horton’s harmonies, a rousingly optimistic anthem about making it out of the darkness, of refusing to countenance those who say “why bother” and of rising from the gutter “to live a life of love, and light and wonder.” Initially charting a Nebraska route, a simple declamatory love song about finding a relationship to weather the storms, Celtic Sea swells around the one-minute mark as the drums, keyboards and electric guitars kick in and build it to a swell.
Another air-punching stadium filler that’s equal parts Petty and Springsteen, as well as being a reaction to the backsliding of Trump’s America, Never Going’ Down Again shares a thematic sensibility with Sad Songs, a defiant four years sober affirmation of kicking the demons with “a heart that’s fueled by love and lightning” and a determination to not fall back.
It ends with God Help Us, a breathily-sung, simply arranged, keyboards-based and cosmic shimmering mid-tempo ballad that puts his Christian faith under the spotlight. While there are Biblical references elsewhere here and on other albums, it’s not something overt in his songs and he’s said the song is essentially him questioning his faith, noting that many junkies replace drugs with Jesus as a different form of addiction, and of the idea of a caring and merciful God when there’s so much suffering. The conclusion balances hope with pragmatism, as he sings “If it’s true, we’re going home/But in this life we’re on our own….”
Since his debut album, 620 W. Surf back in 1991 (when he was tarred with the new Dylan curse), McDermott has released a further ten albums (this is his eleventh) as well as two with Heather as The Westies, the quality of his writing and delivery never dipping. For whatever reason, for two decades, they failed to connect with audiences and constant rejection caused him to question himself and led him into a self-destructive spiral. But then, already turning his life around, with 2016’s Willow Springs everything seemed to click, critically and commercially. The confidence may have faltered, but the talent never has and now, finally, they are aligned and, both personally and musically, he’s become the man he was always meant to be. As he sings on Never Goin’ Down Again, “For the first time it feels, I’m odds on to win.” I’ve placed my bet.