AL LEWIS – Fifteen Years (own label ALM040)

Fifteen YearsSo titled because that’s how long it took to come about, the initial impetus for the Welsh singer-songwriter’s album was his decision during lockdown to finally got through his late father’s possessions, stored in the attic of his bungalow after his death and untouched, for fifteen years. Sorting through the many boxes, he found paperwork relating to his parents’ divorce and his father’s diagnosis of and struggles with multiple sclerosis. What followed were the stirrings of the title song, his first attempt at making sense of the grief and loss he’d been suppressing. Then came more, further directed his life for so long. Further songs followed, cleaving to that theme, fleshing examining themes of grief, healing and finding a place in the world, further inspired by having himself recently become a father and how, as he says “the man I saw in the mirror now looked more like my dad than I ever had”.

Several of the numbers are sung in his father’s voice, case in point being the opening piano accompanied, gradually building ‘Sunshine In Sorrow’ which, Welsh singer-songwriter Sarah Howells on harmony, speaks of the divorce (“We were star-crossed lovers/Who didn’t know our light/From the very outset/It was always an unfair fight”), the last verse and the final refrain sung in Welsh.

Inspired by an inscription on a park bench near his home, the strings-backed, melodically anthemic ‘Never Be Forgotten’ wistfully speaks of regret (“in another life/You would have met my children/Lord you would have loved their smiles”) but is also the catharsis of owning his grief and the release of putting his emotions into words (“I sing these words into the air/And the weight is lifted”) and how “suddenly I no longer fear/Just hearing your name”.

The inheritance of genetic traits is again touched on for ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’, a piano ballad the cascading melody of which conjures both Martyn Joseph and Elton John, inspired by how his youngest and his father both had a dimple in their cheek, the connections between generations captured in the lines “you are the accent when I start to speak/You are the house that you helped me to buy/You are the glint in my daughter’s eyes”, the lyrics also referencing the divorce (“when I was five you went to live with your brother”) and the stoic masculine hiding of feelings (“I wish just once that we’d said I love you/But instead we’d hide behind our pride”).

He returns the image in the mirror with the bluesy, keyboards-backed, slightly falsetto ‘Where Do I Go From Here’ on which Elton’s tinged with traces of the quieter aspect of Chris DeBurgh, a conversation with his father in song seeking advice on how to be a father himself as, as well as his father’s ghost he also sees his daughter staring back in the reflection asking for guidance (“what will I say when the truth will hurt/What can I do that will comfort her?”). It’s a theme continued on the fingerpicked ‘Fatherly Guidance’, with its memories of being taught to fish and play rugby and of now passing down shared wisdom to his own daughters “so that our children will feel/That you’re still around”.

The subsequent ‘Thirty Five’ with its tinkling keys, strummed guitar and harmonies by Darling West’s Mari Sandvær Kreken and Tor Egil Kreken is again in his father’s voice, a musing on post-divorce life and “already looking for a second wife” where “week nights are just microwave meals/In a tin box in my brother’s field”, though here his father talks of taking his daughter to the harbour in summer, introducing an emotion distancing fictionalisation since, as far as I can make out, Lewis has no sister. That’s followed by the sparse, piano ballad and cello coloured title track about the bittersweet experience of going through his dad’s papers and photographs with the memories they stirred.

Given the earlier mention about living in a caravan in field following the divorce, it’s reasonable to assume his brother was a farmer but, while ‘The Farmhouse’, featuring Georgia Ruth on (Welsh?) harp, is ostensibly recounted though his father’s eyes telling of his brother being forced to leave with the land auctioned off to developers, it’s more likely a fictionalised narrative that, with a quiet anger, laments the second home displacement of Welsh culture by English, succinctly captured in the opening line of how “The name on the farmhouse has changed from the Welsh word I knew/To an English domain” and how “This house where my father was raised/Is now available online/At a premium price/For your summer getaway”. But, while it may be English on the door, “this is Cymru to the core”, the final verse pointedly sung in Welsh.

After clearing out his father’s attic, Lewis decided to undergo bereavement therapy, and that is at the heart of the rippling piano pattern ‘Feels Like Healing’, an uplifting leavening of the grief that made Father’s Day and his father’s birthday impossible to bear, the birth of his daughter in the same week part and parcel of the process of letting go. It ends with another slow piano ballad, the self-descriptively titled ‘Beginning To Find You’ about how being eaten away by loss is slowly replaced by the nourishment of the love and the light that is left behind, and of the legacy we and our children carry within us as he finally sings “I’m beginning to find you/In everything I do/I’m beginning to find you/So I can find me too”.

Although anchored by the coming to terms with his father’s death, psychologists might have a field day in that, save for the divorce, the album never mentions his mother or, curiously, the comfort drawn from his wife, but that doesn’t detract from how Fifteen Years offers empathy, understanding and hopefully inspiration to anyone navigating loss and consuming grief (Lewis also hosts Feels Like Healing, a podcast dealing with channelling loss into creativity), a realisation that they are not alone.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Feels Like Healing’ – official video: