Forty-seven years and 19 albums on, McLean’s name is still preceded in reviews by “American Pie singer” and for most people, he’s still probably associated with that and ‘Vincent’. Now 72, Botanical Gardens, his first (and rumouredly last studio recording) in eight years, the first for a major label since 1995 isn’t going to change that.
His voice, as you’d imagine, is more seasoned these days, at times a little on the wobbly side, but he still has the ability to gather you up while the music, a mixed brew of folk, country, blues, rock and a dash of vaudeville, offers a relaxed, melodic listen in the classic manner. The title track, a rolling country blues and gospel number, was apparently inspired by a visit to gardens near the Sydney Opera House and sets the theme of being rejuvenated by love (undoubtedly sparked by the current relationship with his 24-year-old girlfriend) that bubbles through the majority of the songs. Indeed, the title of the twangy Marty Robbins-styled country ‘The Lucky Guy’ pretty much speaks for itself while on the goodtime soft shoe shuffle ‘Ain’t She A Honey’ (slap a big band on it and it could have come from the 40s) his baby’s hot, “a ripper with a buckle and a zipper.. a looker and a steam pressure-cooker. ”
Elsewhere, the giddiness of romance – and the feeling of not quite believing his luck – is also to be found on the similarly retro jazzy swing of ‘You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes’, a number you could hear Willie Nelson covering, and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Your Baby’ which is, well more rocking especially on those 50s sounding guitar solos. Led by piano, there’s a laid back jazzy swing too on ‘I’ve Cried All The Tears That I Have’ with its sentiment about how “it’s better to love and to lose than decide you don’t want to live.”
But it’s not all positive and upbeat. Enrobed with swelling strings, ‘The King Of Fools’, another Willie contender, reflects on screwing up a past relationship as he sings “castles and mansions lie ruined in the sand…I lost your love, my crown and jewels”, while the musically dramatic ‘A Total Eclipse Of The Sun’ looks back to a brief encounter that left him metaphorically bleeding in the dust. The lyrics refer to meeting this heartbreaker back in a hot July and the same month is at the heart of ‘When July Comes’, a stark piano ballad with McLean in terrific voice on a lyric that brushes up against mortality. It calls to mind Brel, Aznavour and, especially, Sinatra, the latter’s influence making itself further felt in the album’s only cover, a piano and strings arrangement of Arlen and Harburg’s ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ which the Guv’nor recorded on In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
Nor is it exclusively about matters of the heart. Another early 50s-styled piano ballad, on the surface ‘You’re All I Ever Had’ would seem to be about a constant lover, but dig a little deeper and it’s more likely about his lifetime’s love affair with music. Of a topical persuasion, while it may have been written in 2015, set to a saloon bar piano, the country swaying gospel ‘Grief and Hope’, a song about healing and looking to a better tomorrow, seems particularly pertinent in a divided Trump America. And, striking a similarly optimistic note, the other, the most country sounding number, with its echoes of Cash and Haggard, is ‘The Waving Man’, which dates back further to 2014, and is actually about one of McLean’s neighbours in Camden, Maine, wheelchair-bound veteran Kert Ingraham who, told he wasn’t allowed to smoke in his care home, took to sitting in the street outside, waving to folk as they passed by, the lyrics musing “does he wave goodbye to the life he led or does he wave hello to the life ahead?” If this really does prove McLean’s recording swansong, Botanical Gardens sees him bow out in full bloom.
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Artist’s website: https://don-mclean.com