Despite a career spanning half a century, Michael Chapman has been enjoying something of a late-career renaissance. It’s not to say that Chapman’s output dropped off as such, but he does seem to have found something of a second wind since the turn of the decade. 2011’s ‘The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock’ saw him go in a bold new direction; shedding the gnarled blues folk, that made his name, for an abstract, drone laden reverie. Whilst his latest long player, ’50’, might not be the radical left-field move that so many of his recent albums have been (add to that list 2012’s gorgeous ‘Pachyderm’ and 2015’s ‘Fish’, among others), it is a vividly fresh entry into his discography.
Created in part to mark a half century of touring – hence the name – ’50’ is a collection of songs that finds Chapman in remarkable form and stands as what might well be his best album in decades. ’50’ has a vitality and youth that belies it’s creator’s age; it’s a record with all the dynamism and energy of a much younger musician, but yet it’s also an album that sees Chapman stand back and take stock of his life, sharing with the listener some profound and often very personal observations along the way.
Never does it feel as though Chapman is resting on his laurels. Whilst he might be one of the most respected and long running of all living folk musicians, he clearly still has the burning desire to make the best record he possibly can. Pivotal to ’50’s success is Chapman’s collaboration with one of the folk’s new-wave’s finest musicians, Steve Gunn. In his own right, Gunn has created some of the most compelling music to have come out of the contempory American alt-folk movement, and his role on ’50’ is not only a hugely significant one – Gunn produces the album and also supplies the electric guitar parts – but it’s a collaboration that breathes even more life into an album that clearly already has no shortage of vitality. Gunn bestows ’50’ with a warmly contemporary sound, the subtle but bright arrangements undoubtedly hinting at his own work but never distracting or encroaching upon Chapman’s own inimitable style.
Throughout the album, Chapman balances a youthful, searing enthusiasm with the introspection and experience of one approaching their eighth decade. It’s a duality of sorts but one that intermingles so naturally that it creates one of the most emotionally resonant records in Chapman’s discography. Melodically immediate, ’50’ is one of those rare but hugely satisfying records that almost clicks into place immediately but still has new things to offer on repeat listens; it’s an accessibility that ultimately doesn’t sacrifice depth.
’50’ features some of the finest writing of Chapman’s career and the highlights come thick and fast; the wistful melancholia of ‘The Mallard’ stands out as one of the most bittersweet songs in Chapman’s oeuvre, the quietly glistening electric guitar and soft backing vocals only adding to the resilient core of Chapman’s wonderfully weather-beaten voice and experienced finger-style guitar work. Album opener ‘A Spanish Incident (Ramón and Durango)’ likewise exposes Chapman’s duality; it has all the bounce and vigour of a fresh faced musician eager to set out on the road, but the lyrics could only come from a man who’s spent most of his life touring the world. Like so much of the album, it’s road-worn but not certainly not tired. Indeed, Chapman remains a consummate live performer as our review of his recent Lewes gig shows.
’50’ is another imaginative, compelling entry into a discography that continues to surprise. Chapman may be best known to some for the late ‘60s/’70s output, but ’50’ is an album that confirms Michael Chapman as a force to be reckoned with, now as much as ever.