DEL BARBER – Almanac (Acronym)

AlmanacEight albums in, the latest from the Canadian singer-songwriter takes its title from the idea of a guide to where you should be heading and what you might expect. As such, Almanac opens with the pedal steel lazing flow of ‘Something To Say’, a song about resisting the temptation to have an opinion about what’s happening and just step back and watch and listen. Switching to jaunty swing fingerpicked style, ‘Still Got You’ has a similar notion in as much as it’s about being thankful for what you have and celebrating the good things when you’re surrounded by nothing but a wave of bad news (“they’re rallyin’ in the streets/I’m just pruning my tomatoes and pulling out the weeds… The whole world goes to shit and I’ve still got you”) before the tempo and mood is reined back for ‘I Told You So’, a guitar and piano number about grief from the perspective of a neighbour whose husband had passed, catching herself still talking to him, and which, though written before he became ill, served as an anthem of comfort and memories for himself when his songwriter father Boyd died in 2021. Barber cites Prine as one of his major influences, but this feels like it has a hint of Mickey Newbury to it.

Celebrated as a storyteller, he describes the uptempo, brisk walking beat, guitars chiming ‘One Good Year’ as a prairie parable, unfolding the tale of young farmer on the Canadian working all hours God sends but, despite seeing farm and family as a success, still never feeling like he’s not getting anywhere and, while the neighbours seem to living off the fat of the land, he’s struggling to make ends meet (“There’s always a wall to put your back up against/Some things don’t work out in the end/I feel like a fool for asking again/for One Good Year”). It’s a great catchy radio song, that fortunately comes with an airplay edit that doesn’t include the line about fucking up again.

Set to a simple fingerpicked arrangement with a clear Prine pallete, ‘Even God Almighty’ takes its cue from a poem by William Carlos Williams called ‘This is Just To Say’ about asking forgiveness and apologising for eating the plums in someone’s fridge that prompted a recurring dream about God in a grocery store buying fruit, and carrying an old shredded piece of paper with that poem written on it, the impetus for the song coming from the irony of seeing a Tennessee church with locked gates all around it save for Sunday. The line about a couple of idiots running for president, deftly summing up his current political outlook.

He return to the farm he and partner Haylan own in Manitoba’s Parkland region for ‘Flash In The Pan’, a slow marching, organ-coloured lazy blues essentially written to cheer himself up when he was feeling particularly despondent about the world and his place in it, turning a wry line of sarcasm as he sings “God bless the mosquitos and the hard winters for keeping all that shiny soft skin away”.

Farming also gives rise to the bluegrassy y’all come stomp ‘Spade’ about the cocky know it all nature of youth, the scenario being how some smart-ass gets taken on as a hired hand and is soon trying to tell the older, wiser and more experienced (from whose perspective it’s written) that there’s easier ways of doing things. He says the stimulus was hearing a local farmer telling one such know-it-all “You can call a spade a spade, but out here, Jim, a spade is just a shovel!”, the metaphorical message swinging both ways though as how you can’t put everything in a box and you need to be open the idea of change.

Arguably the strongest song on the album is ‘Jared’, a simple fingerpicked Prine-styled storysong that harks back to when, in his early 20s, he used to help his mother with the drug rehabilitation centre in the south end of the city Winnipeg that she ran for near 40 years, he driving people to and from court and the remand centre, and spending Christmas Eve celebrating with criminals and the hard done by. The song is based on one such character and seeks to show how misunderstood people can be, how normal looks different for everyone and how easy it can be to make the wrong choices when your options are limited.

Another prairie parable, written with his neighbour and her sister Sarah, the organ-backed steady walking ‘Bulls’ turns its lens on the tough women stoically carving out a life in his part of the world, focusing on the fictional main character’s ability to take care of the hardest of things without getting emotionally overwhelmed (“I woke up to two rifle shots- I ran out to see/She was drinking coffee, sitting on a rock, barrel still warm on her .243/Dead calf it lay beside her, a dead wolf 50 yards away”).

A piano-led slow waltz with a melody appropriately borrowed from Prine’s ‘Donald & Lydia’, the quietly touching ‘Me And Jim’ is a song of unrequited love inspired by seeing a pair of old “gym rats” walking hand in hand down a Montreal street, the tone shifting to tackle depression in the time signature shifting slow to bouncy melody of ‘Maria’, here with another couple, one trying to navigate the changes in the other’s head that sports the memorable image “There’s a raven flying low with fucked up feathers”.

Almanac ends with a frisky bluegrass romp on the aptly named ‘On My Way Out The Door’, a jubilant song about mortality mostly written by his late father and recorded completely live off the floor, a rousing send-off for an album that ranks up there with Barber’s best and, as it says, the promise that “there’s a whole lot more”.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘I Told You So’ – live:

We all give our spare time to run Our aim has always been to keep folking a free service for our visitors, artists, PR agencies and tour promoters. If you wish help out and donate something (running costs currently funded by Paul Miles), please click the PayPal link below to send us a small one off payment or a monthly contribution.