Crafted around a fictional faded seaside town (loosely based on Southend-on-Sea), Boulter’s latest, Clifftown, unfolds a series of 50s tinged melancholic narratives to a gentle Americana backdrop with drummer Pete Flood, bassist Paul Ambrose, fiddle player Helen Bell and Tom Lenthall on synth with Lizzy O’Connor complementing his own guitar, and mandolin.
Lucy Farrell on backing vocals, it opens with the rippling flow of ‘Midnight Movies’, a wintertime tour round the suburban streets, full of boys looking “to find a heart they can write upon”, the narrator haunted by a failed relationship. Inspired by once seeing a woman feeding one armed bandit from a plastic tub of pennies,’ Soft White Belly’ is a rockier rolling rhythm number laced with bittersweet memories of the past, again a lost love (“I visited once mountains with Francine/Some photographs survived/In them we are smiling”), and the feeling it’s time to move on (“maybe I should wake up and save my life”).
We arrive at a snapshot of ‘Clifftown’ itself, a poetic lyric softly sung to a simple, distant bass pulse and violin, Farrell harmonising as he tells of how of “kids grow old and move away from home”, moving to London in search of a future where “they park bumper to taillight…watch mini tvs with tired eyes…drunk on status/Hiding behind their mobile phones” those that remain resigned to their fate “like zombies waiting for their lives to start”.
Here, and as especially on the following fingerpicked ‘Nights At The Aquarium’, Paul Simon is a clear influence, the song again weighed with reflections on a life that failed to launch (“I thought I would be so much more/Not older with debts I cannot afford”), the beauty of the fishes a reflection of the narrator’s own, unfulfilled hopes.
The pace picks up again slightly for the tumbling guitar patterns (strong shades of ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’) ‘The Author, Of All Things She Speaks’, a song he describes as being about “the layers of life that have gone before us which accumulates whether we are aware of it or not”, a moment of epiphany as he wonders “why can’t we live life rather than try to be happy/Is it good to be busy or better to be free?”
Keeping those Simon echoes sounding, ‘Icy Paw’ with its keyboards drone, was inspired by summer memories of kids jumping off the quays and jetties (often being injured on the detritus below), again infused with the yearning to move away but, perhaps frozen in place. The theme of dreams never achieved underpins the mid-tempo ‘The Slow Decline’, its backdrop a small stage in Peter Pan’s Playground as it tells of a girl who wanted to be an actress “but ended up entertainment in a theme park”, her story reflected in the narrator’s own.
‘Fan Of The Band’ with its stuttering drum rhythm, hews to the funkier side of Simon, a memory of Boulter’s early pub rock gigs and is once more veined with the ashes of promises and resignation to ordinariness (“We’re just like any other, we’re born and then we die”), and a resentment of how “England is unworthy, it never stood up for me”.
By way of a digression, the sparsely arranged ‘Simon of Sudbury’ was inspired by his ‘quest’ to see the remains of the Archbishop of Canterbury who, during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, was beheaded by the rebels on Tower Hill, his head taken to a church in Sudbury, Suffolk, where it remains on display, the song, in turn, pondering on our own paths “and who knows next where we might tread”.
Calling to mind more Reg Meuross than Simon, the gently cascading chords and slight shanty sway of ‘Night Worker’ draws on his own early days after moving to London, watching those journeying to their evening shifts, drunk girls tottering home stilettos in hand, its reference to the statue of Neptune on Tower Hill serving as an image of being watched over to counter the line “And nobody loves you and maybe nobody hears” for “You love each like your child and you hold them dear.”
Again tinted with Simon-esque shades, the simply fingerpicked ‘Remnants’ returns to a theme of loss (“I miss you in the morning but especially./When the house is quiet like a forest”) and memories captured by photographs with an enigmatic lyric that seems to talk of something deeply personal.
It ends with the carousel waltzing ‘Pilate’, recorded back in 2016 as a collective session and featuring Helen Bell, Charlie Wild and Sam Sweeney on violin, Jack McNeill on clarinet and Rob Harbron on bass about which he writes “What if Pontius Pilate had been sent to Southend-on-Sea instead of Judea? I wonder sometimes if Southend is just a provincial identity forgotten by the louder noise of London”. A dreamy conclusion to a melancholia-imbued hymn to what The Delays once termed ‘faded seaside glamour’ and a mood that floods the early work of Richard Haley, a wistful, bittersweet snapshot of suburban lives, dreams and capitulations.
Artist’s website: www.mgboulter.co.uk
‘Midnight Movies’ – live: