MICHAEL McDERMOTT – Orphans (Pauper Sky)

OrphansDespite having released solo albums Willow Springs and Out From Under alongside Six On The Out from The Westies in the past couple of years, it seems there were still abandoned songs in McDermott’s notebook looking for a home. So, like a good musical social worker, he’s brought them together and found them safe lodging with the twelve-track collection that may have come from different backgrounds but which share his musical and thematic bloodlines.

Drums crashing on, kicks things off in sterling fashion with the ringing guitar of the Pettyesque ‘Tell Tale Heart’, the title a reference to the Edgar Allen Poe short story but also dropping in references to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey and IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Things slow down for the huskily sung ‘The Last Thing I Ever Do’ (Shakespeare the literary name drop here), a piano-led mid-tempo ballad of resolution (“I will break these chains around me tonight/ If it’s the last thing I ever do”) that conjures the frequent Springsteen parallel (McDermott being one of the few not diminished by comparison), keeping the pace tamped down on the folksy fingerpicked love song ‘Ne’er Do Well’, Elizabeth Browning sharing lyric space with Michelangelo.

McDermott says pulling the album together was guided by the feeling of being orphaned over the past three years, with the loss of his parents and the constant touring keeping an ever present distance between him and home. It’s a sentiment that feeds into a couple of songs, the choppy drum rhythms and harmonica coloured ‘Meadowlark’ talking of “being burned out from the road” and the “unfamiliar beds” and the tenderly warm, confessionally sung, acoustic picked ‘Black Tree, Blue Sky’ with its lines about “cheap hotels with negotiated rates”, where “Left behind strangers’ clothes/Are the strangest souvenirs”, and the morning comedown after the high of performing the night before.

Reflection hangs over the achingly beautiful ‘Sometimes When It Rains In Memphis’, another intimate Springsteensque escape-themed piano ballad (“You said you wanted to get out/Go anywhere/Anywhere they didn’t know you”) one of several songs that, like the broken dreams littering ‘Los Angeles, a Lifetime Ago’, sound personal notes about, four years clean, his past struggles (“I had my foot on the pedal/Yet I couldn’t seem to drive away”) with drink and addiction.

If those are introspective ballads, ‘Givin’ Up The Ghost’ and ‘The Wrong Side O Town’ both play to his full-blooded driving drums, anthemic guitars stadium side, the former, with its oblique reference to Sean O’Casey, again about putting the ghosts of the past behind and tearing down the walls you couldn’t climb and the latter, a close musical cousin to ‘Dancing In The Dark’, another ride into the unknown and exciting danger waiting on “the wrong side of town”.

It’s back to tenderness and regret (“There’s something I feel that, nobody knows/How the loneliness echoes like a murder of crows”) on the slow waltz, organ-backed ‘Full Moon Goodbye’, a reflection on a relationship casualty “in the pale light of mercy.”

The need to make amends and make peace with the past are at the heart of the upbeat mid-tempo soul shuffle ‘Richmond’ where the narrator returns home to “start a new winning streak” and maybe “leave a little note beneath her wiper blade/That reads, ‘I hope all is forgiven, remember slow dancing to Nightswimming/ I’ll never forget you or Richmond’“.

It ends on a piercingly poignant note with a song surely born from those dark years, the almost hymnal piano ballad ‘What If Today Were My Last’ where he asks whether, if this was his final time on Earth, “Would I be happy with the way that I lived/ Would I be proud I stood up to the wicked/ Or be sad with what I didn’t give” and resolves to make “some changes” as the song and the album end on a dying fall.

There are artists out there who would kill to have songs as good as these just sitting on the shelf, but now they’re finally out there in the world for your adoption. As another orphan once put it, “please sir, I want some more.”

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: https://michael-mcdermott.com

‘Tell Tale Heart’ – official video: