Put simply: Hourglass is yet another brilliant and quietly assertive Murray McLauchlan album. That’s saying a lot, what with countless records, a track record that dates back to the 70’s, and twelve Juno Awards to his name. He’s a contemporary of Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell. And he records on the truly wonderful (and very Canadian label), True North.
Now, (the great!) Peter Gabriel sang in the midst of Genesis’ nebulous prog epic, “I’d rather trust a man who doesn’t shout what he knows”. That bit of wisdom, with the addition of Murray’s own comment, “While the world gets noisier, I just keep getting quieter”, and a host of razor-sharp lyrics, touches the ethos of this album. Oh – and there’s just wonderous acoustic guitar playing, too.
The first song, ‘One Percent’, is a steel guitar laced lament from the point of view of the really decent guy who hits his thoughts against the big wall (not paid for by Mexico!)—the gated wealthy community iron grill that always needs “a bigger boat”, is “looking out for number one”; and when this decent guy is confronted with that gated grill, he is afraid that “the cops might knock me out”. It’s a great tune (with lovely pedal steel!) that will always be found in a quiet parenthesis of a Bruce Cockburn record.
There’s more acoustic beauty: the jaunty ‘Pandemic Blues’ sings with nice assurance that “everything will be fine” because “you’ve got hills to climb” and “give it some time”. Oh my! The song ‘America’ – my America – is an acoustic guitar voiced prayer (with an exquisite melody!) worthy of a Robert Frost poem that begs my country to “Stop doing things that tear you apart”. And this is juxtaposed to the promised dream where “nothing is impossible”. This is a lovely and quite earnest get well soon card from a concerned Canadian. Thank you. I’m worried, too.
And then ‘I Live On A White Cloud (For George Floyd)’ quietly rips the bandage off the silent and privileged confessions of comfortable people, who, while watching television news, profess momentary guilt about “someone else’s sorrow”. It’s a brilliant song that touches the same nerve as Phil Ochs’ ‘Love Me, I’m A Liberal’, with less irony and added peppered pathos.
Oh – ‘City On A Hill’ is, again, about my America. Sure, “There is a dream that’s waiting still”. Sure, again, but as John Fogerty once sang, “They point the cannon right at you”. This is yet another get well soon card from a concerned Canadian. Thank you, once again.
The song, ‘If You’re Out There Jesus’, raised an eyebrow. Usually, humour is required with this religious stuff. But, Murray, like the before-mentioned Robert Frost, manages to couch strong wisdom into a warm embrace. Indeed, he says to Jesus, “If you have to come back, it would be cool to come back black”. This is tough stuff, yet Murray has a featherbed manner, as said, with a brilliant and quietly assertive voice. The song volleys – with a strong backhand – over a Randy Newman net.
There are more songs. ‘Hourglass’ has all the hopeful pessimism of a really great Neil Young tune, and it, too, morns the future of humanity “when the memory of us fades”. Indeed, what will happen, “after the goldrush”? Then, ‘A Thomson Day (for Tom Thomson)’ escapes the worry and finds beauty in “the west winds”, and “every fish in the water and every eagle in the sky”. He even mentions “dragonflies”. Again, in the hands of a lesser songwriter, this could be a cliché. But MM simply sings with common honesty. After that, in disquietly waltz time, ‘Lying By The Sea’, again, juxtaposes the desire to be free, which sadly ends in the death of “a little boy lying by the sea”. This, of course, is one of those topical songs that burns with the truth of Syrian refugees’ plight.
Thankfully, Hourglass ends with the wonderful ‘Wishes’, which like the perfect balance beam performance, dearly desires to touch a perfect landing with a joyous guitar, a hopeful lyric, a dancing punctuation point here and there, a comforting organ sound, and a warm pedal steel that sings to the heavens.
That’s the subtle deal with Murray McLaughlan’s music: He “never shouts what he knows”, yet he still stands under all the stars in the evening sky and sings, with that brilliant and quietly assertive voice, a really decent prayer for a very modern world – a world that still needs, thankfully, a really modern folk song.
Artist’s website: https://www.murraymclauchlan.com/
‘A Thomson Day’ – official video: