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Michael Chapman - True North Music Album Reviews

On his second album produced by Steve Gunn, the underground folk icon sings about age and regret with authority and grace.

The British folk guitarist Michael Chapman has spent at least half a century writing and singing about age, regret, and longing. On “An Old Man Remembers,” from his third album, 1970’s Window, he presciently offers, “An old man is lost in his dreams/As he waits for the fruit of his schemes.” Even then, young Chapman sensed the span of time—how quickly the present morphs into past, how laden it becomes with memories. Now, at 78, he’s caught up in number to the old soul he’s often inhabited in song.

True North is Chapman’s second consecutive project with stylistic and spiritual descendent Steve Gunn. Chapman dubbed their first collaboration, 2017’s 50, his “American” album, because he recorded it with the likes of James Elkington and Nathan Bowles. For True North, Chapman sticks closer to home, gathering with Gunn, Elkington, and pedal steel legend BJ Cole at Mwnci Studios in West Wales. The precipitous landscape serves as a fitting platform for subtly psychedelic exploration and deep reflection. In fact, True North situates four new tracks among updates of Chapman’s older, more obscure material. He gives himself over to memory’s full sway, until the project feels a little like thumbing through a souvenir album, Chapman singing about the postcards that help remind him of places held dear.

Chapman catalogs two such spots with the new instrumentals “Eleuthera” and “Caddo Lake.” Named after the Caribbean island where Chapman likes to vacation, “Eleuthera” begins with the exchange of cerulean blues for lingering grays. Chapman’s phrasing is pensive, but Cole’s pedal steel softens the brooding. Sounding at first like a soft flute, Cole wends his instrument so deftly that it practically becomes the deep breaths Chapman takes between his fingerpicked phrases. “Caddo Lake” is another waterscape homage, equal parts meditative and meandering, thanks in part to the cascading timbre of cellist Sarah Smout. These are less homages than mementos, as though Chapman can carry them easier in his mind by freeze-framing them in song.

A loquacious player, Chapman’s fingers often fly at the pace of thought. He taught himself to play guitar by listening to the likes of Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery and even trying to replicate the sound of two guitarists on a record at once. He eases back on True North, working from a kind of muscle memory. “I like to think these days I play more atmospheric guitar than technical guitar,” he’s said. True North’s opening track, “It’s Too Late,” feels more than it sounds, its arrangement brimming with anguished sustain. Chapman’s starched voice bemoans the trick time played on him. “I never knew I wanted you until it was too late,” he sings.

At Chapman’s age, the impetus to look back necessitates a looming finality; in response, he oscillates between bouts of melancholy and tranquility. On “Full Bottle, Empty Heart,” he plays his guitar ponderously, spaciously. But his phrasing turns somber as he confesses, “I never minded all the miles/Seems like I was born to roam/But I just wish you’d walk right in, and take this roamer home.” The earthy voice of fellow British folk icon Bridget St. John underscores the heavy reality of the line, “I got nothing more to give.” The sentiment returns on “Youth Is Wasted on the Young,” originally collected for an archive of Chapman’s assorted castoffs. Here, it’s restrained to the point of being sparse, as if the interim threw the credo into relief.

Rather than end on this dark note, Chapman lets loose on the jaunty, acoustic “Bon Ton Roolay,” originally recorded live for 2015’s Journeyman. The song shifts the Cajun phrase “Laissez les bon temps rouler” into a Haltwhistle dialect, as Chapman joked during the earlier live take. Delivered as an enthusiastic solo number, Chapman gives over to the moment—the best way to enjoy time’s ceaseless progression. His laughter comes unexpectedly, presenting a happier message than True North’s other meditations on life and what’s left of it: The journey goes fast, so find jubilation where and when you can.

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