Michael Chapman sounds weary, weathered, and regretful on his new album True North (Paradise of Bachelors). He’s earned the right. At age 78, with a recording history that goes back 50 years, the English fingerstyle guitarist has done a lot of living and put a lot of mileage on his voice.
In a raspy whisper that is more authentically ripened than Bruce Springsteen’s or Ryan Bingham’s, the native of Leeds, Yorkshire, sings such lines as “There’s wreckage on the highway and plenty more inside … I never knew I wanted you until it was too late”; “We grew up; we grew apart—found other dreams to be pursued”; “This could be heaven, but there’d be hell to pay”; and “So many nights that turned to dawn, so many landscapes so bleak and forlorn. So many futures now all are gone, ’cause youth is wasted on the young.”
Unlike his previous album 50—a transatlantic, rootsy rock-band affair with guitarist/drummer Steve Gunn, multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, keyboards), guitarist/pianist James Elkington, and bassist/synth player Jimy SeiTang—True North almost wallows in minimalist atmospherics created by the mix (produced by Gunn) of Chapman’s fingerpicked and strummed acoustic guitars, Gunn’s subtle, chiming electric guitar, BJ Cole’s sad, silvery pedal steel guitar smears (anybody remember Cochise?), Sarah Smout’s resonantly weeping cello, and the ethereal harmony vocals of legendary English folksinger Bridget St John.
On a few tracks, the only instrument is Chapman’s guitar, which not only puts a line like “If only time were on my side when I’m fully loaded and ready to ride” in starker relief, but also reminds us, as do the instrumentals “Eluthera” and “Caddo Lake” (reminiscent of Jackson’s Browne’s “These Days”), that Chapman was an influential stylist in the early ’70s, a vaunted contemporary of Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, and John Renbourn. But like John Martyn and Richard Thompson and Roy Harper, his creativity took him in many directions, with the poetry of songwriting as a primary driving force.
For all its wistful melancholy, a psychic state that has brought a lot of beautiful music into the world, and despite the chorus of “Full Bottle, Empty Heart”—“I’ve got nothing more to give. There’s nothing left for you to take, unless you really want to hear the sound of a heart as it breaks”—True North is ultimately a declaration of resilience. “Truck Song” finds Chapman “Waiting for the morning light to show the road going on and on, down endless highways,” and “Bon Ton Roolay” closes the album on a jaunty “let the good times roll” note.
A third of the way through 2019, True North is one of my favorite albums of the year. Not only have I been listening to it at least once a day for several weeks, but I’ve fallen down the pleasurable rabbit hole of revisiting Chapman’s early classics Rainmaker, Fully Qualified Survivor, Window, and Wrecked Again (all reissued on the BGO label), and the recent all-instrumental Fish (Tompkins Square). Consider yourself duly warned.
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