I have to admit to being especially pleased when this album arrived last weekend. Thanks to a friend letting me know in the nick of time that not only was Richard Warren supporting Josh T Pearson in Leeds (after seeing the pair of them play great sets in Manchester earlier in the year), but also that a new album was forthcoming. There’s definitely something to be said for looking forward to something, but it’s all the better for not having to wait that long. Not that there’s anything wrong with anticipation of course, but immediacy is a lot more fun.
So, given that last year’s Laments was one of my favourite records of last year, hopes were very high for this one. And the Wayfarer doesn’t disappoint. It’s something recorded (on a two-track reel-to-reel) with a singular intensity and almost completely unadorned, except for his own accompaniment and the heavy dramatic presence of the Union Band providing a brass background that is both exultant and infernal depending on which of the two songs they are so well-employed on.
Opening instrumental Rivington Street lays down the spirit of The Wayfarer from the very start, with its heavily reverbed guitar providing the lonely drive towards two tracks that are so wonderfully huge in scope that it’s hard to believe that they were recorded in such a small space, and are the perfect foils for each other. Lead single The Lonesome Singer in the Apocalypse Band seems to beckon the listener into an underworld of love and excess, with the caveat “if you’re looking for delivery, don’t take my hand” and a brass crescendo that raises the roof (and one’s heartbeat) before it’s over after a mere two-and-a-bit-minutes. The other side to this comes from the 6-minute title track, full of resentment and healthy disdain for the current political climate; sentiments that lead to a revolutionary, damnable condemnation of the perpetrators with the Union Band playing them downwards with the fury of a (sadly, all too prevalent nowadays) wronged colliery band wreaking vengeance, accompanied by blood-and-thunder endtimes preaching. To be honest, if he had just released these two songs as a single and nothing else, this would still be one of the best releases of this year.
Richard’s guitar-playing abilities are well in evidence throughout, showing his skills as both songwriter and performer with both electric and acoustic instruments (and, in Johnny Johnny, both instruments simultaneously to great complimentary effect), playing both as if they were barely tamed, and almost constantly (along with his vocals) at as full a volume as possible. This loudness of expression is in no way indicative of an unsubtle delivery though, Wasteland especially providing a lightness of touch without losing any ground to its neighbours in the gleefully-skulking and swampy (complete with insect chirruping) The Willow and the Jackson C.Frank riffing (“Send out for Whiskey, send out for Gin”) of Through the Fire.
It all closes with the unsettling lullaby My Heart (Ragged & Broken), presented as a scratchy 78rpm disc on an old gramophone which adds another layer of atmosphere on a record already dripping with the stuff, seemingly happy to inhabit any time period during the last century.
I have no idea if Richard’s (hopefully continuing) tenure with the Soulsavers helped shape this current direction, or if his current musical outlook went towards providing a spiritual compass for their last two albums, but both parties share a similar desire to steep themselves in a Blue Velvet America where everything has a dark side and every town passed through has something for every rung of the ladder downwards (and back up again). The Wayfarer sounds as if from someone who knows these places all too well and extends both a warning and invitation to the rest of us. I honestly have heard little to top this album in terms of musical, spiritual and emotional intensity this year (something that his live shows further exemplify), and it’s something that I have no hesitation in describing as one of 2011’s utterly essential records.