MICHAEL WESTON KING: The Struggle (Cherry Red Records)
Sometimes the best laid plans can go awry, and in the throes of a pandemic arrive with only the merest hint of their original intention. The Struggle was meant to see life as an album by My Darling Clementine -- Michael Weston King's long respected and productive collaboration with his wife Lou Dalgleish, think "a tongue in chic" George Jones and Tammy Wynette with a modernity of approach. Deft and ironic, for the past twelve years they have been garnering an ever increasing audience and rightly so. Lou however does make a cameo vignette in the closing track as an erstwhile country Nancy Sinatra. The album is pefectly pitched between storytelling aspects and moments of introspective confession.
It soon became clear that this batch of tunes belonged more to one voice than two, personal, reflective and haunting it is an album of American ghosts walking on a more distant and rugged shore. Specteral touches arrive and abide, the scope and ambition of Mickey Newbury, the doomed swagger of Gram Parsons,and the majestic melancholy of Townes Van Zandt, a friend and collaborator, whose funeral Weston King had the tragic honour to play. 'The Struggle' being his first offering of new solo work in over twelve years,arrives as a timely reminder of the unique nature of his singular gifts.
Recorded in Wales at a remote studio it is an album of chills and assurances. Americana remains awash with deft reflectiveness, loss and longing, mostly unfulfilled, and even if they are, exemplify the grief that mostly comes from answered prayers. A raw and honest work, stark but with the imbued artifice of honed craft, it lingers in the mind whilst haunting the heart.
Proceedings begin with "The Weight Of The World" a song presented in the guise of a Trump voting cop and the disillusionment his brief act of support creates.
"Now I'm looking to the man who got my vote.
Why do decency and love stick in his throat?
Who sends soldiers to the streets instead of messengers of hope"
It is a perfect embodiment from a distance of a confusion from false promises that remains pertinent. The song in a longer guise with reportage snippets bookends the album. Observation and regret going hand in hand.
"Sugar" is a fine collaboration with the legendary Peter Case. A treatise on the addictive nature of emotions, a murder ballad that toys with but never succumbs to the impulse, self-immolation versus personal pragmatism.
"Struck by the cane
Every time I feel the pain.
Just one hit
And I can't stop"
In "The Hardest Thing Of All" piano melancholy underscores depression:
"And you're trying to tell someone
That you've known for so long.
They say they're coming round today
Or maybe they'll just call
Will you answer the door?"
A terse enscapsulation of a wished for need denied by the one that requires it most. This theme of confessional honesty continues with 'Another Dying Day' a sombre reflection on having to keep up with someone whose positivity grates and annoys especially when your mood is at the polar opposite of their spectrum of apparent joy.
"The Old Soft Shoe" utilizes the tempo of a waltz in the guise of a widower remembering their dance hall days:
"I still do the old soft shoe
I trip around the kirchen,
There's a table for two,
But I live here alone
And nobody knows
That I dance each evening on my own"
Sad songs can say so much and this one does so exquisitely.
This mournful theme is also annotated and observed with diligent honesty in "Valerie's Coming Home" about the death of his wife's mother.
"They packed away her cards and letters
Folded up her favourite sweaters
Handed you her wedding band
That's not been off in fifty years.
Took down all the photographs
Snapshot moments from the past
Boxed up all her memories and faded souvenirs.
Nobody wants to see her leaving
Nobody wants to find her not at home"
A song for tears without warning, a treatise on the universal aspect of mourning, it is one of the album's most nakedly honest tracks, whilst savouring affectionate and playful traits from a respectful and rewarding relationship that has been snatched away.
Backwards glances are the subject of "Me & Frank" an epistle about remembering a lost teenage friendship with someone who went off the rails, though entirely English in inspiration it could have been lifted from Peter Bogdanovich's haunting monochrome masterpiece of snalltown America The Last Picture Show.
"I've not seen him in thirty years
I miss his smile but not the tears"
The last brace of songs are inspired by his friend the late Jackie Leven. A troubadour and maverick giant of man "The Final Reel" expresses both admiration and the stark reality of interfacing with such a driven soul.
"Now the trumpets have all faded out
And the final reel has been shown
You taught me the ways of the drinking man
Now I must drink alone
But I'll play the halls we know so well
And I'll sing the songs we cried
Until I join you in the devil's choir
Your voice will never die"
It is both a celebration and a romancing of recklessness, and a stark reminder of the consequences via absence.
Some fine piano by ex-Attraction Steve Nieve entwines with caressing strings from Mike Cosgrove on "Theory Of Truthmakers" Weston King's setting a lyrical fragment by Leven. It is the perfect closer.
"But you and I
We press our palms
And reach for the sky
There's a face in the cloud
I don't recognize
That stares down on you and I"
There lurks an appropriately church-like quality reminiscent of David Ackles, whilst the ghost of My Darling Clementine walks when Lou Dalgleish joins in on the chorus of a song from an album that might have been theirs.
What remains is a work of integrity, perhaps his finest solo outing because of its unintentionally altered path towards construction. Though the title comes from a hill walk in the English Lake District it is a perfect allegory for the pitfalls of simply surviving.
Solid, honest and vulnerable here is a work adorned with hurts unstitched from a well worn sleeve. A confidence of maturity without a need to boast.