Folk veteran returns with career-best album
How do we end up where we are? Can we be more or less than the sum of our experiences or is that thought just a conjuror’s illusion? Why is it that some people get better at what they do as they grow older and others shrink? Do we play a major part in shaping our destiny or is it all just luck and happenstance?
Well no and yes and yes and no. There is certainly an element of fluke to what becomes of us. Paul Brady says so himself in ‘Luck Of The Draw’, a song which will already be familiar to Brady-watchers from the Bonnie Raitt version. It concerns the lost souls, the wannabees that haven’t made it, but are still scratching around in hope, personified in the shape of a bar waitress, who’s writing screen plays on the side and dreaming still of the big break.
On one level, it is a tune of hope and defiance. There is nothing worse than giving in, nothing less edifying than resigning yourself to mediocrity – especially since the margin between success and failure is often so painfully thin. Everyone in Hollywood is an actor or a screenwriter and, given how many bad movies are made, it stands to reason that for every shit script that gets turned into a film, there’s a dozen better ones that have been passed over or ignored. Sometimes, after all, it really is just a question of getting a half decent break, of being in the right place at the right time. But what if you’re dealt nothing but bum hands? “These things we do to keep the flame burning,” the slightly world weary narrator observes, “And write our fire in the sky/ Another day could see the wheel turning/ Another avenue to try/ It’s in the luck of the draw, baby/ The natural law…”
But of course it is more than that. Forget about success or recognition for a minute. What you create as a writer or a musician is a function to some degree at least of the work that you put in, of how well you learn the ropes, and of the extent to which you successfully master your craft. It doesn’t mean that the graft is always going to be fully appreciated or feted. But if it is there in the work itself, there is no gainsaying it. This much Paul Brady understands. You can hear it in every choice of chord, in every melodic twist and turn, in the measured words, carefully considered and weighed for effect.
Hooba Dooba, his first album since 2005’s Say What You Feel, is an ambitious record. It deals in the big themes: love, faith, destiny, money, politics and death. But more than that, perhaps, it is a craftman’s tour de force, a vibrant statement of songwriterly intent from an artist who has achieved a mastery of the grammar of popular music and is capable of marrying that to fine lyric writing and superb musicianship. The result, with Brady’s hand written all over the instrumentation – variously playing acoustic and electric guitars, piano, keyboards, organ, harmonica, mandolin, bouzouki, percussion and loops – is at once deft, fascinating and hugely impressive.
The album opens on an upbeat note with ‘Cry It Out’, a soul-based rocker with a contagious riff, that gets things off to an impressive start. ‘Rainbow’ keeps the energy flowing, a superbly arranged, infectious Hawaiian flavoured pop song that only starts to really infiltrate the subconscious after ten spins, but is worth persisting with.
But it’s on the third song in ‘The Price of Fame’ that the bar is significantly raised. There’s a Dylan-esque feel to the delivery of the opening lines, which are most reminiscent of the maestro in his Street Legal era. Co-written with Ronan Keating, it is a fine song, with a great melody, superbly framed by an arrangement that draws the maximum drama from the story of a love that can’t survive the pressures of life lived under the spotlight. Garth Brooks could have a huge country hit with it.
‘One More Today’ is a beautiful love song. Listening to it, the first reaction, is to ask: who is that? Burt Bacharach, Randy Newman and David Ackles spring to mind, but of course it is Paul Brady singing what has all the hallmarks of a beautifully romantic black and white movie theme song, surrounded by well judged strings courtesy of Fiachra Trench, and musing contentedly on the good fortune that true love truly represents. “One more today,” he sings, “With your fingers in my hair/ One more today/ To hear your laughter in the air/ A miracle of love that moves me/ More than words can say/ Now and forever/ Now and forever.” Miracles do happen.
It’s back to a soul and funk groove for ‘The Winners Ball’, a track that confirms what many may feel is Brady’s unlikely mastery of the idioms of black music. ‘Follow That Star’ is swampy and Creedence-like, a bluesy howl of warning to those who are permanently in need of instant gratification. And, on a similar theme, ‘Money To Burn’ offers a jaundiced view of the machinations of the privileged elite, bankers among them perhaps, who are presumptuous enough to imagine that the world owes them a living. “When you gonna realise how lucky you are?” Brady demands. “You could be an infant junkie screamin’ for more/ Or clingin’ to a refugee boat waitin’ offshore/ Knowing that your owner keeps every penny you earn/ ‘n’ all the people you meet every day are the tricks that you turn/ All I hear is one white male with money to burn/ And a whole lot to learn.”
In a pleasantly unexpected interlude, Brady dips into The Beatles’ back catalogue for ‘You Won’t See Me’, from the wonderful Rubber Soul. It starts as a folksy version, that
– brilliantly arranged and executed – revs up into something bigger that’s beautifully customised for radio play. With the right kind of support it could be a hit; the only question is are our programmers sufficiently alive to see it?
On ‘Over The Border’ Paul goes where so many others fear to tread. Mixing American, Irish and Arabic inflections in the music, he paints an idyllic picture of what life might be like in some Utopian future; perhaps, though, what he is really talking about is death. He carefully and powerfully rejects, equally, first US imperialism and its poisonous effect on world politics, and then the putrid Islamic extremes with which we have all become too familiar over the past twenty years. “You can keep your holy Jihad/ Your fatwa on the infidel,” he declares, “Fantasise the world will heed your call/ Segregate your men and women/ ‘scuse me while I sing this song/ None of that makes any sense at all…” Far too many others shirk from saying it.
The album closes with ‘Living The Mystery’, a beautiful thought and a wonderful title that is finely distilled in a Jackson Browne come Eagles-style West Coast country-rock ballad that evokes the effects of quietly sipping a mellow 18 year old whiskey.
But my favourite track right now is ‘Mother and Son’. In terms of the melody and the feel, it recalls Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Talk To Me Of Mendocino’. Rooted in folk music, it is a beautiful song that reflects on the journey from childhood to responsibility – and from responsibility back to a different kind of dependency. “Mother and son/ Who can foretell the mystery to come?” he asks.
And then he proceeds to unravel it as best can be done.
“Her dreams grow dimmer now,” he sings. “The years have claimed their toll/ A child once more, she waits/ For peace of mind to fall.” A pervasive sense of loss is evoked, an awareness of the terrible march of time and the inevitable command that mortality exerts over human affairs. He weaves the imagery till we know that we are snared, till we see ourselves finally “Tied to the beat of the ancestral drum/ Nowhere to run/ From mother and son.”
It’s one of those songs that makes you wonder: why did no one write it before?
Hoooba Dooba is packed with great songs. Which ones will still be being sung in fifty years times remains to be seen – for that is in the nature of things. But it is enough to speculate that some of them certainly will. This is by far Paul Brady’s most assured and deepest album since the seminal Hard Station. But give it time: we may yet conclude that he has finally eclipsed that extraordinary record.
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