Friday, January 27, 2017

Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr Ferryman, 2017

Album Review

By Henry Lipput

Hey Mr Ferryman is Mark Eitzel's tenth solo album and his first in three years. It was recorded in London and produced by Bernard Butler who was part of Suede and McAlmont & Butler (with the amazing British soul singer David McAlmont). In addition to his production duties, Butler plays bass, keyboard; and, most prominently, electric guitar on the album.

This isn't the first time Eitzel has worked with a well-known, and well-regarded, guitarist. Back in 1996, he teamed up with Peter Buck (R.E.M., Hindu Love Gods). Over the course of a couple of days, they wrote and recorded West. The album didn't do very well (My theory is that's because it wasn't from Buck's main group.); but, listening to it now, it holds up really well, especially because of Eitzel's voice.

That voice has been compared to Leonard Cohen and Levon Helm; but, for me it's Eitzel's glorious yearning quality. It can be sad. It can be jokey. It can be romantic. Or it can just be telling you a story, a story you want to hear until the very end. And more than a few of the songs on Hey Mr Ferryman are short stories with melodies.

The album opener, "The Last Ten Years," has a lush arrangement courtesy of Butler. However, Eitzel's delivery, and the upbeat feel of the song, belie the seriousness of the tale. As the narrator, presented as something of a bar fly, floats down the river Styx on the way to his final destination, he tries to chat up the boat's driver, the ferryman: "Do you party? Where are you from? Do you know where to go when the party's all done?"

The lovely "An Answer" begins with the line "Come on and dance with me right here" and follows soon after with "Dancing is the only thing I do right / As long as we keep it nice and slow." The lyrics describe dancing together as a way to forget --- if only for a few moments -- your problems.

The acoustic guitar in "Nothing and Everything" recalls an English folk song, and the vocal is soft and quiet. But the lyrics describe an abusive relationship: "Because you love him / You're the punching bag / He's just a big child / It's just a game of tag." However, unlike the woman in Billy Bragg's "Valentine's Day Is Over," the character in Eitzel's song seems too scared to leave.

Behind a bossa nova beat, "An Angel's Wing Brushed The Penny Slots" tells the story of a  man who, following the death of his wife, visits a Las Vegas casino every day. As an angel appears, he tries to get up, trips on the carpet, and dies; but, he thinks, "Well if that was death well it's not so bad." In the afterlife, he continues to visit the casino because "The El Cortez still welcomes me / 'cause if you die on their floor / Then all the drinks are free."

"Let Me Go" is a tale of downfalls, and it has an epic sound with terrific electric guitar, strings, and horns that's similar to Butler's production on The Sound of McAlmont & Butler. The lyrics in the first verse are dark and brutal, describing a man, literally, on his way down. Falling in the street, "The sidewalk gets high off my blood/ It chews and chews it like gum / Without hunger and without love / After all the taste is gone."

The album closer, "Sleep From My Eyes," is both a lullaby and a thank-you song. Eitzel's hushed vocal is accompanied by a gently strummed acoustic guitar as he sings,  "You make me forget / All my million goodbyes."

Hey Mr Ferryman is out now on Merge Records.

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