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Neal Morse - Life & Times (Album Review)

Monday, 05 March 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Joey Pippin

Anyone who has watched The Leftovers, a HBO drama about the aftermath of a rapture-like event where 2% of the world’s population vanished for no apparent reason, will be familiar with a character called Holy Wayne. The leader of a devoted following, he could allegedly take away people’s pain with a single hug. While the validity of his ‘gift’ was debatable, Neal Morse’s new album feels like the real thing. ‘Life & Times’ will wrap its loving arms around you and brighten up your day.

Diving back into the singer-songwriter world he first turned his hand to on 2014’s ‘Songs From November’, ‘Life & Times’ may be bereft of the grandiose soundscapes and clock-busting epics we’ve come to expect from this prog legend, but it proves his compositional flair, storytelling smarts and penchant for indelible melodies will shine through regardless of the style.

Possessing a vibe that simultaneously spacious, soothing and cosy, these shorter, more classically structured, songs are deceptively laid back as they draw from influences old and new.

And, although an unplugged six string anchors most tracks, piano, organ, pedal steel, cello, French horn, strings and more are deployed in a way that favours delicate embellishment over huge musical statements.  

The earworm uplift of Good Love Is On The Way and She’s Changed Her Mind recall the literate breeziness of power-pop stalwarts Fountains of Wayne, while Wave On The Ocean transports you to a sun-drenched west coast beach with its looping sun-kissed hook and funky, billowing bassline. Elsewhere, Lay Low is chilled out country escapism and Old Alabama, an ethereal duet between Morse and Julie Harrison, recalls the Laurel Canyon folk of Crosby, Stills & Nash and is virtually begging to be covered by country stars Little Big Town, or Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

These slice of life vignettes serve up visually rich, pleasingly varied and reflective snapshots of ordinary people, alongside personal tales, in a way that almost renders it a vaccination against fast-paced modern living and disconnection. Manchester is a geographically-challenged rib-tickler, Selfie in the Square finds the songwriter pining to enjoy Luxembourg with his absent loved ones and JoAnna – written about a break up his son had – is bathed in heartache.  If I Only Had A Day, meanwhile, gracefully imparts sage conversational life lessons and You + Me + Everything is a beautiful ballad that gives thanks to a beloved partner.

For all its wit and warmth, there’s social poignancy too. Inspired by personal experience and lots of research, the folk-classicism of He Died At Home is a tragic tale of a soldier with PTSD being mourned by his mother after killing himself. Exposing the military’s dirtiest secret with an intimate, unflinching candour, it strikes hard courtesy of empathetic musical sparseness and cutting detail.

Even though he’s spent two decades singing openly about his conversion to Christianity, some have, rather speciously, suggested Morse has adopted this singer-songwriter format because of how personal these songs are.  In truth, with the subject matter being grounded in everyday reality,  these straightforward and accessible songs have been employed because they’re much easier to relate to than 20 minute epics that sound like an apocalyptic face off between warriors from Mordor and Asgard.

That said, ‘Life & Times’ initially seems too understated and easy going. Patience is required, though, for its bountiful charms slowly emerge in in a way that reflects this record’s unhurried stylings rather nicely.

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