As a long time admirer of Michael Chapman and indeed Steve Gunn, this album is something we at Rockshot Industries have been waiting for.
Michael Chapman’s new record 50, (produced by Gunn) titled to commemorate fifty years of touring—and released four days before Michael’s seventy-sixth birthday—stands as a formidable monument of retrospection and introspection in his adventurous catalog. A return to the gloriously ragged kineticism of Rainmaker (1969), Fully Qualified Survivor (1970), Wrecked Again (1971), and Savage Amusement (1976), Michael’s first “American record”—an elusive goal for decades—embodies his undeniable late career masterpiece.
50 is Chapman’s first album in years with a full band, assembled around the versatile core group of friend and producer Steve Gunn (who also contributes guitar, drums, and vocals): Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, keys, vocals; Pelt, Black Twig Pickers); James Elkington (guitar, piano; Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson), and Jimy SeiTang (bass, synthesizers, vocals; Rhyton, Stygian Stride).
Michael’s dear friend and fellow UK songwriting luminary Bridget St John furnished her gorgeous, shivering vocals, a dramatic counterpoint to Chapman’s road-worn gruffness. Gunn’s touring bassist and longtime engineer Jason Meagher (No-Neck Blues Band) recorded and mixed at his Black Dirt Studio in Westtown, New York. The inherently collaborative nature of 50 shows in its ambition and execution; never has Michael ceded such generous control to other musicians, and he sounds both invigorated and liberated as a result. Gunn’s and Elkington’s guitars knit with Chapman’s in easy intergenerational dialogue; sparks fly.
The album includes both radical reinterpretations of obscure material from Michael’s catalog as well as three new compositions: Sometimes You Just Drive, Money Trouble, and Rosh Pina. A longstanding but freshly urgent preoccupation with (as Michael sings in a beloved early tune) “time past and time passing” is evident straightaway, from the album title and the first line of the first song through the final lyric of the record.
Never before in his storied career has Chapman gazed so steadily into the abyss of time lost and regained; never before has he engaged so intimately with his legacy and the changing meanings of his own music over time. That he manages to do so without succumbing to nostalgia or sentimentality bears testament to the steely fortitude of his ruminative, tough-minded songs, which survey both inscape and landscape with the same stoical detachment.
Chapman’s spare writing on 50 displays a refined economy of gesture, often unfolding in episodic parables (see The Prospector and A Spanish Incident), wherein regret and redemption elide symbolically in a sublime chiaroscuro self-portrait, more shadow than light, his world-weary whispers assuming the incandescent power of prophecy. The boozy good humor and resignation of Money Trouble and A Spanish Incident find traces of comedy and camaraderie amid the absurdity of a world in which we lose our words, our way, our faith. The menace and anxiety of Sometimes You Just Drive, which poignantly conflates the End of Days with the end of one man’s days, and Memphis in Winter, a hellish Bluff City travelogue, contrast with the naked vulnerability and remorse of Falling from Grace and Navigation. In lead single That Time of Night Michael confesses, movingly, “you know I don’t scare easy, but I do get scared.”
With 50, Chapman faces mortality with guitar in hand, and endures. It’s the unguarded sound of Orpheus descending, and returning upstream to tell his story. Michael Chapman’s 50 is due out January 20th on Paradise of Bachelors. The deluxe LP package includes tip-on jacket, printed inner sleeve, lyrics, and download card with two bonus tracks; the CD features a gatefold jacket, lyrics, and the two non-LP bonus tracks.