I first encountered the now Essex-based Liverpudlian singer-songwriter with the release of his single, ‘Northern Town’ and ‘A Town With No Cheer’, two spare tales of the region’s industrial decline and its effect on those that live there. They both now appear on Paper Ships, his second album (only available in physical form via his website), produced by and featuring Michael Timmins alongside his Cowboy Junkies drummer brother Peter and released on his label after the original funding fell through.
Again, it’s very much rooted in themes of loss, depression and despair on both a community and individual level, Bowers’ deep, dark vocal style and intimate delivery calling to mind Cohen, Van Zandt and Guy Clarke, blostered by instrumentation tnat embraces pump organ, pedal steel, accordion and Dobro
It opens with the first of the single tracks to be followed by the slightly more uptempo, melodically brooding desert Americana textures of ‘There Was A Time’, a reflection on people, places and times that have passed, especially those lost to conflict who “sleep now on foreign shores.” It’s a theme that also informs the slow waltz crawl of ‘Winner’, thoughts from overseas where “Summer here can hit eighty five in the day/And take the strength from the strongest man”, “raking through the past” and reflecting on lost friends, lost youth and a lost relationship while clinging to the hope that “all things will become new again/ And my friend me and you again/ Will paint the whole damn town red/Tear down the walls, have a ball”.
Possessed of a hauntingly melodic organ underpinned chorus, ‘Ghosts’ is another deliberate, slow-paced number that, winters “colder than they used to be”, again treats on loss, both personal and the death of once vibrant high streets as “Only old ghosts walk behind you/On that road”.
Its echoes carry over into the stunningly desolate and despairing ‘Town With No Cheer’, followed in turn by the bluesy fingerpicked ‘A Place By the River’, the lines “The men they don’t cry here god forbid and oh the shame/Soldiers of god show no mercy when they fight and kill and maim”, finding the narrator back in the combat zone, where “each day I watch my friends fall”, “boxed in with no way out” and remembering “a place by the river on the bend where the willow grows” while “gambling on a book that says Jesus saves will bring me safe home to you” even though “God’s left his heaven and nobody can hear me at all”. Given the Timmins link, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say this could easily have found a home on The Trinity Session.
Taken at a mid-tempo jogging strum, ‘A Fine Day To Leave’ is, relatively speaking, a more optimistic number in as much as, the old streets now rubble and where “junk blocks the river where we used to sail/ Our paper ships on summer days”, it’s about having nothing to keep him from bidding it all farewell, his lover hopefully joining him on the search for better times.
The autobiographical ‘Northside’ carriea memories of its cobbled streets and “rows of houses all the same”, of being born in the year Elvis recorded ‘It’s Now Or Never’, of growing up in the shadows of the shipyard, walking with his later grandfather on New Brighton Pier, of young boys gone to war straight from school and of seeing “so many good things disappear.” And yet, again that glimmer of hope finds its way through in an uplifting chorus avowing “There will be better times/A light to guide a star to shine”.
Still, you can’t keep a good depressive down for long, and so the album ends with the Clarke-like ‘You Stole My Joy’, where, while “Grandma’s in the kitchen at the stove/ Singing along to the radio/Singing ‘Any old wind that blows’”, he’s confessing he’s “too bad for my own good”, that “The romance has gone like the great Wild West” and how “Nothing much got built after seventy nine/The whole damn town it took a dive”.
Like Cohen before him, Bowers is magnificent proof that melancholy and torment can produce great music and resonant lyrics, there may be ghosts behind us but Paper Ships encourages us to take their hands and walk with them towards the light.
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Artist’s website: www.ketebowers.bandcamp.com