Michael Chapman – True North

Album Review | Paradise of Bachelors |Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 5/5

February 2019 sees the latest album by Michael Chapman, English and unashamedly proud Northern guitarist, songwriter and vocalist. True North, wrapped in vintage photos, including some of Chapman’s own dating from his time as an Art College photographer tutor and an earlier family portrait, crackles with history. It is also a concept album or themed set of songs as it attempts to show us different aspects of truth and uses Chapman’s self reflection as a mirror to see our own humanity for what it is. His unwaveringly self critical eye takes a long look at himself and life’s lessons. “Its Too Late” is a song about the realisation of truth, soaked in regret. Chapman’s vocal oozes gravitas and he breathes the words, his acoustic ripples like sunlight on water while BJ Cole seethes masterfully on the pedal steel.

“After All This Time”, written and first recorded in the 90s, after a chance meeting in a bookshop, with his initially unrecognised ex-wife, is Michael Chapman at his very best. The words, written down or sung are poetry, he takes a very personal story and turns into a song of truth and hymn like universality. The electric guitar, nodding back to the opening of “Shuffleboat River Farewell” a life time ago on Wrecked Again in 1971, is ethereal Steve Gunn mining Chapman’s past. Michael’s own acoustic is an exercise in grace and space. The utter triumph of this track and, possibly the album, is the duet between Michael and Bridget St John. The lyric, sung by two people, suggests a sharing of responsibility and a growing apart, rather than a leaving and a blaming. “Vanity and Pride” uses a tune from Chapman’s 1987 Heartbeat album. The instrumental was titled, “The Minute You Leave”, Michael says he knew even then there were words, he just hadn’t written them yet. The tune is masterful and the words are charged and powerful, Chapman like a hellfire preacher rips away vanity and false pride to reveal truth.

“Eluethera” is a Island in The Bahamas, and a reflective escape for Chapman, who likes to get back there every now and then. On this album it is a sublime instrumental, in part based on the guitar from Michael’s Pachyderm one chord instrumental album. It is a chance for Chapman to deliver those hypnotic guitar hooks, duetting with BJ Cole’s shimmering pedal steel. “Bluesman” has another wonderfully world weary vocal, huge washes of double tracked acoustic guitar, atmospherics, paraphrased Stones lyrics and another fine performance from Bridget. “Full Bottle Empty Heart” is wry realisation around a song that is bitter, sweet and full of lyrical perfection. Again Michael and Bridget’s voices twine together in a way that is just captivating. “Truck Song”, is a new song, a strong contender for best in album, a favourite of his and a continuation of “Another Story” the truckstop waitress song. It’s also a short story, where, like Guy Clark’s “The Dark”, every word and every line is a picture. The band grooves, Sarah Smout’s Cello roars with emotion, as it does throughout the album. Michael’s beautifully picked guitar and Folk blues lines about ‘morning light’ reminds us that, despite a lot of water under the bridge, the spirit of his troubadour roots, Rainmaker and 1969 are not that far away. “Caddo Lake” is an inspirational lake in Texas, where Michael, roamer and traveller, in an exercise in musical mindfulness, lost an afternoon, playing his guitar, back against a tree. The full air, the sense of space and slowed time are palpable as Michael, Steve and BJ paint pictures. One of the albums messages is about living in the moment as well as reflecting. “Hell To Pay” is the moment of realisation of truth and consequences.

Michael recorded his first album, Rainmaker in 1968, seeing it released at the comparatively methuselah like age of 28. From the start he has assumed the role the outsider and people watcher, looking back, like that fully qualified survivor role he explored and defined. This has led to songs like “It Didn’t Work Out” from Rainmaker, “Stranger In The Room” from the career defining Survivor and “An Old Man Remembers” from Window. Its easy to see “Youth Is Wasted On The Young” as the bitter end of the dream for a 78 year old musician, until you consider his lifetime of songwriting around similar themes. I first heard him spout the line in 1989, strung out but unphased, after a night and morning on the tiles, failing to get back to his digs at Kendal Folk Festival. The song was first recorded as part of the Thurston Moore and English album in 2001. The lyrics are charged and heartfelt, but the longer you live and the fuller you live the more you have to look back at and compare to the uncertainty of the future. Its a masterful song, Michael’s vocal is real and lives the lyric, delivering it with complete integrity. Sarah’s Cello is a hymn like poignant final note. “Bon Ton Roolay”, is a wry smile after such a uncompromising song, delivered solo, with a chuckle, its a reminder that even poets, thinkers and seers go out and have a good time in search of, or maybe to briefly forget the truth. Stripped back after the fuller sounding 50 released in 2017, for a man who turned pro playing a Jimmy Giuffre drum less jazz instrumental on the guitar, this is his cerebral, ethereal, Americana Cool Jazz album. At a point when veteran hard living musicians are stuck in a retirement home endlessly telling the same anecdote, Michael is hitting another golden patch having delivered four of his strongest albums in succession. Or maybe he never stopped. Youth is wasted on the young and I want what he’s having. This is up there with his and anyone’s best.