Michael Weston King - The Struggle
Normally Michael Weston King is better known as being half of My Darling Clementine, and is normally to be found singing duets. It is an art form he takes very seriously and a quick run through of their last album "Country Darkness", a selection of Elvis Costello covers, showed just how much attention to detail goes into completing each duet.
Occasionally there will always be songs that do not fit that format and so here we find a superior collection of songs gathered together on "The Struggle". Struggle is an apt phrase that runs throughout the record, the cover may refer to a climb in the Cumbrian region, however this is very much more the stories of lifes struggles.
Most of the songs are solely written by Michael and they contain a vivid collection of characters, brought to life before our very eyes, the disillusioned cop in "Weight Of The World", or the sad, lonely pensioner in "The Old Soft Shoe" are all very much three dimensional,each dealing with some sort of struggle.
Th album is book-ended by "Weight Of The World", a retelling of events in America throughout the Trump years through the eyes of cop. The gentle guitar lines that open the song barely prepare you for what is to come, as we find the policeman making a fateful decision that he will regret by the end of the first verse.
"I put a cross beside the name - I thought that it would be a change for good"
The narrative takes in events like the death of George Floyd and the army being deployed on the streets.
Events reach a crescendo with the infamous clearing of the streets so that Trump could pose outside the Church across from the White House, where the disaffected cop forms part of the thin blue line protecting the President. It is a powerful comment and telling that it has to be made from this side of the Atlantic. The track also closes the record with the "Ghostwriter Mix" adding News channel reportage over the top, which sends chills down the spine as it really brings those news stories into crystal clear, sharp focus.
For a song about depression "The Hardest Thing Of All" comes with a joyful organ sound and a guitar line that owes a slight debt to Nick Lowe however there is no getting away from the subject matter
"When the hardest thing of all is just getting out of bed
and the sun that's streaming in, only lights a darkness in your head"
The day to day relentlessness of depression is all too painfully spelt out
"This burden of the blues - it doesn't give you any peace"
Michael's vocals come with compassion and recognize that progress comes with tiny steps, like answering the door to someone.
"Will you answer the door? - Will you take that call?"
The organ that kicks in halfway through is truly uplifting, which provides a nice counterbalance to the sadness in the lyrics.
Michael's ability to build characters is like that of a master storyteller - "Another Dying Day" finds us meeting another one - a husband whose wife has gone and now finds himself in the depths of despair. The juxtaposition between the gentle beautiful almost Bacharach like tune at times and the starkness of the lyrics is hugely moving.
I can't believe some of the things my mind wants me to do
From the outside looking in everything seems well
But the truth that lies within a man, can shame the soul
Until he can't take back the plans that he'd never detail"
There's a barrier he can't pass that Michaels vocals capture perfectly
"Despite the happy times she went away
Despite the better times she couldn't stay"
The mood is lifted with "The Final Reel" which although it has death at its centre, is actually a celebration of the life
of Jackie Leven, "your voice will never die". It is uplifting in so many ways, Mabel Dalgleish-King's recorder is one of the sweetest sounds you will ever hear while Michaels tributes are heartfelt
"You taught me the way of the drinking man
Now I must drink alone"
Another tortured soul is the character in "The Old Soft Shoe" the eternal wallflower forever condemned to dance alone
"I still do - the old soft shoe - When I am lonely with nothing to do"
He practices and practices yet later observes "a dancing partner is all that I lack". In his mind he has the ideal partner, the one he was too scared to ask and it she who dances with him
"I close my eyes and I'm at your side
We're spinning and turning there's nowhere to hide"
It's a heartbreaking tale that you can imagine being played out across the UK. With a tune at times almost like a lullaby, the guitar so subtle, you can almost visualise Michael dancing around as he sings - it feels that real!
The ability to create such little vignettes is a true art and "Valerie's Coming Home" is another that many will sadly recognize. Anyone that has lost a parent of a certain age will be nodding their head at the salient points that Michael has picked out
"Took down all the photographs
Snapshot moments from the past
Boxed up all her memories and faded souvenirs"
The house that was always "too warm" now does have a chill and the Grandkids pictures are to be taken down.
Has there ever been a more poignant end to a song than the mention of the answerphone filled with messages of those saying "they'd come around just as soon as you got home"?
With the instrumentation mainly just an acoustic and electric guitar and a piano perfectly picking out the right notes, it is Michaels voice that conveys the real lyrical emotion of the song.
It is something that "Me & Frank" comes along as a slice of light relief, even though the tale within contains more drama than an average Sunday night on tv! The tale of two friends starts innocently enough although there is a sense of unease from the very start.
"Me & Frank were the best of friends
Thought our summers would never end
Selling seeds for money to spend
Which Frank blew"
There is time for horse stealing that ends with a stint in jail, and the arrival of a stolen gun does not bode well, and eventually leads to Frank heading off in his mother's car with all the loot, that he then gambles away. The narrator destined to be repeatedly wronged, admits "I could never judge the man".
Accompanied by the gentlest of backing, the focus really falls on Michaels telling of the story which consistently holds the listeners attention.
"Theory of The Truthmakers" sees Michael add the tune and some additional lyrics to ones written by Jackie Leven, with contributions from Steve Nieve on piano, as well as Lou Dalgleish of My Darling Clementine on backing vocals.
"The Struggle" to listen to is anything but a struggle it is an absolute delight. At times there is no denying that the mood is a little dark but it is handled in such a way that the album never feels gloomy. A collection of songwriting that justifies it being called an art, and a selection of players all contributing to making a splendid overall sound - highly recommended.