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Neal Morse - Songs From November (Album Review)

Friday, 15 August 2014 Written by Simon Ramsay

When prog-rock legend Neal Morse announced he was boldly going into new territory on his latest solo album, the mind boggled at what wonders the former Spock's Beard man might unleash. The result is more shocking than you'd ever imagine, though, as he's gone all reductive and made an album of short, accessible, relatively 'normal' songs. Who'd have thought it?

Fresh from Transatlantic's epic 'Kaleidescope' album - released earlier this year - and with another supergroup record ready to drop next month in the shape of Flying Colors’ sophomore album, Morse's progressive itch has been temporarily sated. Which is why making this comparatively stripped back, singer-songwriter affair inbetween makes perfect sense.  

Although a different aesthetic to his usual work, 'Songs From November' is still recognisably Morse, with his trademark love of melody, spiritual storytelling and smooth, earthy vocals to the fore. There's still a veritable smorgasbord of instrumentation fleshing out the compositions too, giving the songs the requisite emotional flavouring where desired.

The ebullient funky pop of Whatever Days is a case in point, with sparkling piano, triumphant horns, lush harmonies and a gleeful saxophone solo enhancing its reflective mood. Song For The Free, meanwhile, feels like a Simple Minds epic with misty mountain beats, celestial strings, folky guitar and ethereal backing singers gradually growing more prominent as the tune swells to a spine-tingling finale.

More subtle, but equally tremendous, are Flowers In A Vase and Love Shot An Arrow. The former is a country-tinged gem with some delicate lap steel and a gorgeous chorus, while the latter's heart-wrenching balladry packs the kind of passionate, moody conviction Michael Jackson did so well.

Morse's love of the Beatles is all over this record too. The mournful violin, sadness and eventual optimism on My Time Of Dying brings to mind While My Guitar Gently weeps, while closing track The Way Of Love has the kind of laid-back, swaying groove and punchy brass section the Fab Four excelled at.

In classic prog style there's a strong narrative thread throughout, with Morse musing on his past, present and future while making sense of everything that's special in his life. Wear The Chains does that particularly well as he cheekily notes how stoners, dreamers and the like are forced to surrender youthful idealism for comfortable conformity as they grow older.

As if to unintentionally reinforce that, in places the album is too easy listening and needs more bite, though. When Things Slow Down is beige and unremarkable, while Daddy's Daughter is the kind of track ageing rockers feel compelled to write about their children. It's likely parents will relate to the personal verses, but that doesn't stop it being overly sentimental and a little cringeworthy.

While this album buzzes with Morse’s positivity, his Christian beliefs – although not as overtly stated as on past efforts – might be too sickly for some. Heaven's Smiling gets mushy over the miracle of creation in All Things Bright And Beautiful fashion, but there are points when even cynics will find solace and strength in the purity of his spirituality.

Patchy in places and in need of a little more momentum, 'Songs From November' still bears all the marks of a master craftsman at work. At its best, the compositions are emotionally honest, immensely catchy and feature the kind of buoyant outlook that would even make Victor Meldrew crack a smile.  

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