Blue Speck, the eighth album by the Suffolk-based singer-songwriter takes a decided environmental course on the opening ‘All We Have’, a spoken track with Helen Mulley on backing vocals about “This pile of microbe infested soil/This tangled mat of vegetation/where insects busy their tiny lives to sustain a host of feasting creatures” and “This tapestry of peoples picking the un-earned means of their existence from nature’s bulging pockets”. It gives way to the gently fingerpicked and brass-brushed title track, inspired by the picture of Earth taken by Voyager as it passed Mars, a song about perspective (“I live on a tiny blue speck on the edge of a galaxy/Chasing my dreams in this insignificant world… We are dust/Drifting in time/We are something that happened somewhere along the line …Blink and you wouldn’t know we ever were here”).
That’s followed by the first of two pandemic numbers, originally written for a production of Raymond Brigg’s ‘When The Wind Blows’, the slow strummed ‘When This All Blows Over’ with its musical echoes of John Prine and anticipation of a return to normalcy (“When this all blows over/We’ll grow our roses again/We’ll mow the lawn, we’ll trim the hedge/We’ll sweep the leaves from the drive/We’ll pick up the pieces”) but also asking what will be the new normal (“Nothing will be quite the same/Some will survive, others will not/What will become of those who remain?”).
Set to the fingerpicked traditional tune of ‘Willy O’Winsbury’, ‘The Ballad Of John Noyes’ relates the true story of his village of Laxfield’s martyr, a shoemaker who was burned to death in 1557 for refusing to take the Catholic sacrament as decreed by Queen Mary (“Strange to tell one single foot/Unburnt in its hose was found/So they buried that with his ashes/In a pit there in the ground”). He’s not the only Laxfield character to get a tribute, sung unaccompanied by Kelly Bayfield ‘The Sad Lament Of Henry Keable’s Mother’ tells of how, having committed burglary with his father, who was hanged, the teenage Keable became one of the first convicts transported to Botany Bay where, unexpectedly, he flourished his family becoming known as “The First Family Of Australia’, the songs, however, being from the perspective of his grieving mother back in England (“They tell me this is justice for the crime that was committed/But I am the one who is punished the most and deserving to be pitied…Now I’ll never watch my bonny baby grow into a man/And no more take him in my arms for the rest of my life’s span”).
Sandwiched between, the second pandemic number, the lilting ‘When All Is Said And Done’, Mulley duetting on vocals, was written as a love song to his wife during the first few weeks of Covid (“When you are troubled/When you get frightened/I feel the same fear/You’re not alone…Love is the engine/Love’s not a tether/Love is the freedom/That holds us together”).
The sparse, concertina accompanied ‘Winter Song’ is a seasonal snapshot in song (“Grey skies in the morning cast a shadow on my heart/There’s frost on the ground it’s cold and it’s wet/And a mist shrouds this town like a spiderweb net/It’s that time of year when everything dies/And the embers of autumn fade in winter’s cold eyes”) but also one about growing old (“He sits by the window and stares through the pain/These days just getting dressed is a major campaign/His fingers are slow and his eyesight’s a curse/And the constant frustration just makes matters worse/People try to be kind but they just tell you lies/When the embers of autumn fade in winter’s cold eyes”).
Just under six-minutes, with Paul Gillings on harmonica, Spanish guitar and hints of early Roy Harper, the moodily picked ‘Taillights’ is equally reflective in its existential confusion (“I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how I came/I don’t know what I’m doing here, or who to blame”) and finding a compass in the kindness (or at least the bed and arms) of strangers (“If you’re lost on the motorway and your fuel’s running low/Just follow my taillights baby, I’ll take you where you need to go”), that transforms into a ghost story a la those sentimental American trucker ballads (“I had a cup of coffee from the pot she’d left/With a note saying she had to go out early …I stepped into the hallway, there was somebody standing there/He said ‘What are you doing in there?’, I said ‘Why should you care?’/He said ‘this is Eloisa’s flat, she died a month ago/In a crash on the motorway’… Then he took me to the graveyard, and there written on a stone/“Just follow my taillights baby, I’ll take you where you need to go’”).
Also tipping the five-minute scales, ‘That’s When The Crying Starts’, Steve Turnbull on piano and Mulley on backing, has a strummed country flavour (Ian Tyson?) to its musing on how love doesn’t always work out (“sometimes emotion takes the upper hand/And a lover’s tiff becomes something more grand/Then the temperature runs high/And sparks begin to fly/Thrown from harsh words that pierce like poison darts”).
A wistful piano ballad, ‘The Turning’ uses the dimming of the day and the transition of the seasons as a metaphor for loss and yearning (“A heart broken/Recalls a parting glance without a murmur of regret/Reluctant to forget…A house of dreams built on shifting sands/Falls apart without love’s glue/I’m missing you”). A similar melancholy infuses the more musically uptempo strummed Dylanish folk blues ‘Running On Empty’ (“I’ve been looking for something that I never found/I’ve been chasing dreams and jumping at shadows/Trying to keep my feet on the ground…I’ve been lost in the jungle and guided by stars/I’ve fought demons and devils within /I’ve been haunted by phantoms been tempted by angels/And I know how a nightmare begins/Now I’m running on empty/But I still haven’t found my way”) which moves from the individual to humanity writ large (“I built cities of stone and bridges of steel/I’ve built highroads and railroads too/I’ve learnt nature’s secrets the science of life/And I know why the sky is blue/I’ve sailed ships on the oceans, flown planes in the sky/Even ventured out into the stars/I’ve planted my flag and walked on the moon/Now I’m looking for life on Mars/I’ve invented gods to blame for my woes/And explain what I don’t understand/Climbed that mountain of hope but I’ve never seen/Any sign of that promised land”) as he wonders “In a million years will we still be around/Or just fossils to witness our crimes”.
Backed by concertina, the penultimate ‘Life, The Universe and Everything’ is a brief philosophy of existence (“I think mankind and all his endless universe/Is just a part/Of some leviathan’s digestive system/And the god we hold to rule our destiny/is that creature that we labour to sustain/And in its turn, it lives in its own universe/And forms a part of some even greater being”), before closing with, by way of a surprise, a fingerpicked and cello arrangement of a secularised take on ‘Good King Wenceslas’ to chime with the message of generosity to those in need.
At this point, it seems sadly likely that he will continue to remain, as the blurb says, “one of the ‘best kept secrets of this nation’s songwriting community’”, but those who are already privy and those who may be prompted to explore, will be of no doubt that this blue speck is a mark of true quality.
Artist’s website: www.tonywinn.org.uk
‘The Ballad Of Henry Keable’ (not on the album) – live at home: