If Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him. In which case, he’d be called Michael McDermott. Hailing from Chicago, he made his critically acclaimed debut, 620 W. Surf, in 1991 and has subsequently released a further fourteen equally acclaimed albums alongside two with wife Heather Horton as The Westies, many of the songs documenting his battle with addiction, having been sober now since 2014. His lyrics have also been quoted in novels by Stephen King who has called him “possibly the greatest undiscovered rock and roll talent of the last 20 years”.
St Paul’s Boulevard, his 15th, featuring co-producer Steven Gillis on drums, bassist Matt Thompson, Grant Tye on guitars, Horton on violin and vocals and Vijay Tellis-Nayak on keys alongside contributions by Will Kimbrough, John Deaderick, David Grissom and Danny Mitchell, is a concept album of sorts, following the lives of assorted characters, lost and found, rich and poor, to the backdrop of the fictional anywhere street. As he puts it, “Everyone has their own St. Paul’s Boulevard, the place where we left pieces of our hearts, our innocence, where we suffered heartbreak, came to learn about shame, where we struggled to find our place in this world. It’s where some of us were permanently arrested in our development and our social and emotional intelligence”.
It opens with ‘Anam Cara’, a brief sample of street noise and mumbled words about hard times, the title the Gaelic phrase for ‘soul friend’, before, riding Gillis’s pounding drums, it slams into ‘Where The Light Gets In’, an anthem of positivity as he sings:
Look on over yonder,
I see a new day marching in…
With all the weight that we’ve been under
Yeah, We’re gonna rise up again
The song continuing with the narrator recalling those who offered support in troubled times (“Irene she was like a dream…/She gave me shelter when I was down/Though she never stood in judgement/When she found me down on the ground”) and reminding the lonely that “There’s a part of heartache that is holy” and that “the wound is where the light gets in”.
The drums continue to problem the momentum with ‘Our Little Secret’, an urgent folk’n’roll number about “A Wisconsin girl….a hotel room/A beauty queen….Tom Ford perfume” and stolen moments of lust and need on the road (“I got a dirty mind and a love so true”), before changing the mood on the handclap percussive chug of ‘Sick of This Town’, the first of the album’s escape-themed tracks as he sings about being trapped by the past (“You see my mom and dad are buried here/I go and visit them once a year/Feels like my futures in the rear view mirror/Man I’m so outta here”), a dying community of mom and pop stores where “Each year it’s more of more or less the same/Strip malls, bar brawls, football games” and “All I see are the reminders of how it all went wrong”.
It’s followed by the piano ballad The Arsonist’, another number about salvation from self-destruction (“I was an arsonist/Burning down palaces/Self-pity and helplessness”) through the love of others and an autobiographical nod to Horton (“a light revealed/In my darkest hour”), appropriately followed, again in ballad mode, by the rebirth and redemption of the lyrically poetic (“You held your phone just like a gun”) ‘New Year’s Day’ about putting a relationship back together and starting over (“For so long we’ve been mired/In the fields of the unknowing/When you reached out for my hand/I didn’t mean to be indifferent…All you have to do is ask/When you’re buried beneath the rubble/I’ll put on my cape and mask”).
Opening with echoing footsteps, the sentiment and scenario are reinforced on the strummed, organ-shaded Springsteen-tinted waltzing ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (“I know something is wrong/In that pretty little head of yours/You’re dressed up for the opera but I see you sharpening your swords…we’re stranded on different shores…I found your invitations to the hanging/Stacked neatly in your dresser drawer”) and the need to say what’s on your mind and find a solution rather than dancing round the minefields and letting things fester.
Referencing Chicago, the tempo kicks back up with ‘The Outer Drive’, a second track about getting away from things (“The lavender lights of The Drake/Are telling me there’s no time to waste…/I got this feeling that I just can’t shake…/There’s that goddamn ceiling fan/Hangs like a noose above a wanted man”) with sketches of those dragged into the darkness (“Jake’s up on Clark Street/With a dozen daisies scattered at his feet/Dr. Billy lost his license…/He said ‘The city’s filled with compromises’/Last night, I saw Johnny Diversey/He said ‘This city is running low on mercy’/He was seeing double down Division”) where “The Pirates of Lincoln Park/Look to hook another broken heart”. If Springsteen is a touchstone, then the lines “She punched my arm put her foot on the dashboard…/And said ‘People get the lives they settle for/Babe, There’s nothing left for us here anymore’/Tell me of that place you know/We’ll leave this all behind/You and me together side by side/Let’s take the outer drive” could be his ‘Born To Run’.
Things take a lyrical swerve on ‘Marlowe’, another hooks-laden heartland rocker, that pays tribute to Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, but also references Michelangelo, Hemingway and Gatsby as well as the Chateau D’If in the Count of Monte Cristo, taking the character as a reference point for the search for direction and meaning (“There’s a place for you and me/Where I will be like Marlowe in the morning/You’ll be Cinderella by the sea/From the rooftops of Atlantis…/Across the fields of Avalon/I saw lovers neath the streetlights/On dead end streets of Shangri-La/I wanna wrap my arms around you…/Tell you everything’s alright/I got me a map hidden in my hat/That’ll lead us down a path to paradise”).
The final lap begins with the jangly scampering Dylanesque ‘All That We Have Lost’, a paean to those victims of Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, the poorest in New Orleans as well as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, John and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Ghandi on the road to freedom, the Dylan influence echoed in the line “Times they are a changing/Man they’re getting stranger all the time”.
Another number riding a steady drum beat, catchy chorus hooks and Chicago landmarks references, ‘Dead By Dawn’ is a “You only get one time around” carpe diem song and about doing whatever it takes to “get us through/This rat race of men and mice” where “Everybody seems so damned scarred”, only to end up with regrets (“Sometimes to get the things you really want/You do some things you wish you never did/Then one day when everything is gone/All you got left are the things you hid”), the lyric suggesting deals made with the devil to survive (“I never meant to put you in any danger/There are things that you don’t really wanna know”).
Dropping in another reference to Chicago’s Diversey Parkway, the slow, piano-led, breathily sung reflective ballad (“Why does your memory always hit me so hard”) title track finally arrives, the line “Won’t you please send back my regrets/To all the lost souls stranded/Down on St. Paul’s Boulevard” knowingly echoing ‘Desolation Row’ as the narrator recalls dreams that slipped past (“I got your name tattooed on my heart/I wish I’d never let you leave me”), the neighbourhood’s broken saints (“None of the heroes around here have capes/They’re just talking in taverns or on fire escapes/Or dance, with their dreams, behind the drapes… just grifters and drifters trying to survive”) and characters like The Samoan Gun and Shovel Hands Dan the flim flam man.
It’s another number about the character taking their leave of the chains of the past (“Got my ticket in my coat/And they’re boarding in less than an hour/But I ain’t coming back that much I know”), and is dutifully followed by the punchy Bruce-rocking ‘Pack The Car’ (“Maybe a change of scenery…./Might be the best for you and me…./I would never leave you here alone….Let’s pack the car and go”) because “I’m so sick of sleepwalking through life, here everyday/Watching all our hopes and dreams just slowly fade”.
There’s no assurance of a pot of gold over the rainbow “Ridin’ in the bar car on a/Southbound train to Memphis”, but there might just be ‘Peace, Love And Brilliant Colors’, a mandolin-led jangling folksy Guthrie-shaded benediction to “ye dreamers and lovers, sisters and brothers” who “still believe there’s something more” and, while “sometimes we need to fall to rise again”, echoing the opening number, that “There’s a new day waiting just outside your door”.
It ends with an acoustic guitar and mandolin romantic love song in ‘Paris’, where his Irish roots call Shane MacGowan to mind as, name-checking Notre Dame, Rodin, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides and the bridge of locks over the Seine, he sings “Let’s save all our money/And go to Paris in the spring/Get drunk in a café/Hear Edith Piaf sing/You can tell me all your troubles/We’ll talk about everything”.
St Paul’s may be a boulevard of broken dreams, but McDermott also paves it with humanity and hope on what is undoubtedly one of the finest albums of the year.
Artist’s website: www.michael-mcdermott.com
‘Sick Of This Town’ – official video: