Michael Blyth has been both singing and living the blues – for many, many years. Sometimes in bands, sometimes in prison, sometimes on the street and now on record.
Titled Indigo Train and credited to Michael Blyth & The Wild Braid the album begins with the line, ‘There’s only a moment between loving and pain’.
When written down it is a beautiful line but when sung by Blyth it is so much more for in this one line you can feel all that love and pain; all that love and pain that has taken 40 years to put on record and has sometimes left – in his words – “His soul in torment”.
The opening track Short Dog of Night Train is one of nine songs of alt-country, Americana, love ballads and blues – eight originals and a majestic cover of the Rodney Crowell-penned Song For The Life – all drawing on his many rich life experiences while showcasing his pure, soulful lived-in vocals. And what a life he has lived.
A life that led to this moment where ‘with a little help from his friends’ he has produced the most poignant and beautiful record of this and many a year.
But to put this album in perspective you have to first hear about that life of love, pain, torment and music…
Blyth’s love of music came from his childhood when he would sing along to his mother’s radio playing seven-days-a-week. By his twenties Blyth was playing in a series of folk rock bands in Brighton, which was actually the same band with different names: BellyButtons, Bare Hands and Poison Girls.
“We kept changing our name as we imagined we were maturing as musicians,” says Blyth.
All was well until the singer and guitarist, Richard Butler, decided he wanted to go in the direction of his friend’s new band, Buzzcocks, and play three-cord punk, “At which point I flounced out of the band, due to musical differences”.
Then the band’s name changed once again, this time to the Psychedelic Furs, and they made millions! And maybe just maybe the years of torment began…
In 1978, Michael moved to California, chasing the love of his life but when that went belly-up he fell in with his other true love, alcohol. Thus began a a lost weekend that lasted a couple of decades and took him to the gates of hell and back. He emerged periodically, trying to resurrect his musical passions, but ultimately struggled to shake off his demons.
“I never stopped writing, motivated along the way by the pain and joy, to turn lead into gold,” says Blyth.
He returned to London in 1994 and took up the study of psychotherapy, working as a counsellor in a rehab centre. However, his love of music never stopped calling and twenty or so years later he found kindred spirits in Pete Wilkinson (Shack, Cast, Echo & the Bunnymen, Aviator) and Mark Neary, bass guitarist, pedal steel and producer (Adele, Van Morrison, Noel Gallagher, Aviator) and together they wrote this life-affirming album.
Of course Wilkinson and Neary come into this record on the back of this year’s excellent Aviator album Omni but this is no Aviator album. This is The Wild Braid and this is as much a Wild Braid album as it is a Michael Blyth album as the music sometimes melancholic, always seductive, soothing and atmospheric complements and cushions Blyth’s tales of love and lost beautifully told in his tortured vocals.
With Neary’s pedal steel at the forefront of many tracks the songs – and vocals – have a feel of Willie Nelson, Chip Taylor and Johnny Cash about them but most of all they evoke the sound of later Leonard Cohen – especially when the exquisite backing vocals of Sarah Ozelle come through – as well as Tom Waits in his more romantic moments.
There is an art to making music like this, as in the wrong hands an album can morph into a slow dirge but here the arrangements on the album and order of tracks allows it to flow like a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The pace hots up slightly with the third track Cecelia: and if indeed Cecelia is the muse for this album then thank you. Here Blyth sings some of the most simple, most gorgeous words ever written down as he thinks about his girl on “This green Irish morning” and “When they last kissed”.
After this The Wild Braid settle back into that lovingly lush groove while Blyth slows it down again on Some Kinda U before ironically declaring that he doesn’t “Drink as much as I ought to” on – the aforementioned – Song For The Life as they make the song their own. Interestingly I, personally, came to this song via The Waterboys version and Wilkinson tells me that Blyth is a huge fan of that band and suggested they should cover it. In modern-speak they certainly “Own it” and it is perfectly placed as the middle song of nine.
The final four songs are quite simply astonishing.
When The Mist Comes Down brings out Blyth’s folk-singer roots. The guitar-lead Something I Said sees Blyth still searching for the answers while Morning Star could have easily slipped off Cohen’s Old Ideas album. Cohen’s ghost also hovers around the final track When Day is Done; a track that is stripped right down to voice and piano as Blyth closes the album with the words, “When day is done you are the one I love”.
Simple words that end a simple, expertly-crafted album where the words and music have come together to produce a beautiful piece of art. A beautiful piece of art that deserves to be in your record collection. And while you’re at it buy it for your loved one as well because however clever you think you are you will not be capable of writing such lovely words and music. Even the cover and artwork is drop-dead gorgeous.
Without doubt the album of the year!
Indigo Train is released on 10 September 2018 on Aviator and is available to pre-order here