Tales from the dark side 

Riding a wave of creativity – it is a little over 14 months since we reviewed the wonderful “Kingsdown Sundown” record – Will Varley is back with album number five.

On the last one it was clear he was imbued with the same gift for storytelling as the very greatest, but it was equally clear he was his own man. He was dismissive about it in interviews, saying only that he wanted to write what he termed “honest” songs. They were slightly more, it made for an uncomfortable collection, yet one that was somehow personal to Varley, but at the same time belonging to us all.

The trick, perhaps, is not to do it again, but to build on it, and in every respect, “Spirit Of Minnie” does that.

Perhaps the most important difference is also the most obvious. ”…Minnie” marks the first time he has recorded with a full backing band. Plus, the thing is produced by cameron McVey (Massive Attack, Portishead, Neneh Cherry), and there is a definite feel of searching for something throughout.

The brilliantly personal, almost claustrophobic, songwriting style is still around. On the fantastic opener “All Those Stars” the use of characters first names only heightens the feeling that you are reading someone’s diary: “Lucy said I’ve been drinking too much and I am looking for another kind of God” is typical of the style.

“Seven Days” is a real highlight and couplets here are stunning: “You could build Rome in half a day, if you weren’t asleep in your marmalade” goes one, but the band here enables the track to be built round some interesting syncopation too.

“Screenplay” with its piano touches has the sort of earthiness of the Stereophonics first record, while the drum pattern that infuses the outright British folk of “Breaking The Bread” feel as though it is its beating heart.

The wider pallet of colours that having an accompaniment brings enables a move into country with the lap steel drenched “Statue”, and the sense of desperation, not just here but throughout the record is encapsulated in the line “I’ve been trying to find a new way of living, as this one is giving me a heart attack….”The title track only builds on this feeling of all consuming helplessness and at the risk of mentioning it again, the way the instrumentation is used here is perfect.

“Let It Slide” is awash with mandolin, and to suggest it has hints of Dylan in its delivery probably will not upset anyone involved. It also provides the album’s only singalong hook and most immediate moment, while “The Postman” casts Varley in real troubadour mode as well as building to a unexpected crescendo, as if to say that nothing was off limits here.

Fittingly for a dark record, things end in unsettling fashion. Two of its lines: “My parents made me out of alcohol and boredom” and “they taught me the ways of the two legged carnivore, breathe the air for free, the rest you have to pay for” are more than modern poetry. They are a study in the modern human condition.

Anyone who loves bravely original singer/songwriting should listen to Will Varley. That’s a given. However, to truly understand “Spirit Of Minnie” you perhaps have to first realise that there really is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Rating 9/10


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