Chris Cleverley’s 2019 album We Sat Back And Watched It Unfold was, in my view, nothing short of a masterpiece. I challenge you name a better second album by anyone – except perhaps Disraeli Gears. It should have catapulted him to the top of the heap, but… In the middle of the pandemic years he recorded Live From The Glass Isle near Glastonbury Tor which may account for the mystical feel of some of the music. Chris is entirely solo except for the contribution of Dan Whitehouse on ‘Rachael’, which gives us the opportunity to appreciate his guitar playing uncluttered by complex arrangements.
He opens with ‘The Scarlet Letter’, derived from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. The words could have been traditional once but the melody and setting are definitely modern and this is a technique that Chris frequently employs as we shall see. I related to ‘The Ones Like Ourselves’ as soon as I first heard it – I may have been an anchorite in a previous life – but there’s a suspicion that he isn’t completely committed to being a hermit when, at the end, he sings “I could use your help with the ropes and the poles”. Actually can you be a recluse with someone else or is this just a very clever love song?
Many singers have worked with ‘Shenandoah’ in the past and Chris gives it an alternative title – ‘The Blood Red River’. There is a fair bit of the original in this song, mostly melodically, and some gorgeous guitar but lyrically it’s a song of regret. He sings of crossing Annan Water and that journey didn’t end well in the original ballad but in this version he conquered that river and now faces the Missouri. A similar borrowing from the tradition occurs in ‘The Low Light Low’ which quotes extensively from ‘Golden Vanity’. I hear this as a mystical love song but I could be wrong – there is certainly a sense of loss and separation here but that is counterpointed by the instrumental break which is just the verse of ‘Golden Vanity’.
My colleague Mike Davies has reviewed Live From The Glass Isle elsewhere and I have to say that I can’t agree with his interpretation of ‘The Arrows And The Armour’. One thing about Chris’ songs is that you can read so many things into them and while this is certainly a love song my view of it is coloured by a long-standing affection for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. If that makes no sense to you then I’m sorry.
‘Glitter’ is the one cover on the album, a song by Minnie Birch, and my least favourite track but Chris follows it with the Victorian grand guignol of ‘Madame Moonshine’ taking us into the foggy alleys and opium dens of Old London Town. Finally, we have ‘Rachael’, a song that I’m still trying to unpick. Its talk of God and the Devil draws me back to the Dickensian vision of ‘Madame Moonshine’ but I’m sure I’m wrong about that.
Live From The Glass Isle is a perfect companion piece for its predecessor with its stripped back readings of the songs contrasting with the originals. That said, Chris makes a big sound on ‘Madame Moonshine’ but these versions are easier to unravel. I can hardly wait to hear Chris live again – it’s been too long.
Artist’s website: http://chriscleverley.com/
‘The Scarlet Letter’ – really live: