Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Michael McDermott - Hit Me Back

Michael McDermott - Hit Me Back
Rock Ridge Music
Four stars

Michael McDermott's music, like Springsteen's and Van Morrison's, helped me to find a part of myself that wasn't lost, as I had feared, but only misplaced. That's why we love the ones who are really good at it, I think: because they give us back ourselves, all dusted and shined up, and they do it with a smile....Michael McDermott is one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock and roll talent of the last 20 years."

-Stephen King

In the 21 years since the release of Michael McDermott’s debut (1991’s 620 W. Surf), Stephen King has always remained one of the singer/songwriter’s biggest fans, quoting lyrics in his books or offering testimonials like the above excerpt for the liner notes of McDermott’s albums. But while King was always McDermott’s most noted champion, he was never his only one. Upon the release of 620 W. Surf, many critics named McDermott as the next in a long line of legendary songwriters, the heir apparent to Springsteen, Dylan, or Van Morrison. As is clear now, though, history told a much different tale. The hype went to McDermott’s head: he was only 22-years old, a young, naive, free spirit with no idea of how to reconcile his future path with his sudden dream-come-true situation. He responded to that predicament by going off the rails, turning to drugs and alcohol, partying in a fast-lane, out of control manner, and scaring the hell out of the people closest to him.

One of those people was A&R man Brian Koppelman, who went on to become a noted Hollywood screenwriter and producer, and Koppeman’s first film, the 1998 poker cult-classic Rounders, carried a lot of this experiences with McDermott within its narrative. Matt Damon’s gambling protagonist actually shared the songwriter’s stage name (they call him “Mike” in the movie), while Edward Norton’s character, an out-of-luck ex-con with big debts to pay, carried the surname Murphy, McDermott’s actual birthright. Though they gave their hero his name, Koppelman and screenwriting partner David Levien both admitted that McDermott aligned more with the Murphy character, a notorious screw-up who just can’t seem to catch a break. And things went like that for a long time, McDermott compromising his talent to drink his way to the bottom of a bottle after every show, or colliding with law enforcement with the 2002 cocaine bust that befell him on the way to see a Wallflowers show.

It wasn’t until midway through the decade that McDermott finally began to find his redemption. He found it in love (he was married in 2009 and now has a daughter) and in Italy, where he discovered that his music had reached a much greater audience than it ever did in the states. 2009’s fantastic Hey La Hey showed off a lot of that redemption, shedding the scars of McDermott’s scorched past and pledging resilience and devotion in its best songs. The follow-up isn’t quite as consistently solid, but it has more highlights and its best tracks are among the best things McDermott has written, period; a fair trade-off, I’d say.

Past its hooky opener and title track (where McDermott addresses his alcoholism through an instantly infectious chorus) Hit Me Back spends a few ponderous, sluggish tracks (“Let it Go,” “The Prettiest Girl in the World”) getting started, but once the record does settle upon the right path, it’s a wall of hits right to the end. The haunting “Dreams About Trains” kicks off an incredibly strong mid-section, carried along by ghostly back-up vocals and striking lyrical portraits that, in McDermott’s words, evoke “Robert Frost, Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Kennedy, The Blues Brothers, and the fact that [he’s] always lived near train tracks,” all in just over five minutes. The result is a masterfully dense piece of songwriting, with enough nuances and beautiful textures to spend hours dissecting; luckily, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The shattering “Ever After” finds McDermott ruminating on the loss of his mother, who passed away shortly before the recording of Hit Me Back. “The further we went on, I knew something was wrong, I felt it in my gut/I thought Pandora was joking when she said some doors that open won’t ever shut/Like a lion in a cage, my hands are fists of rage,” McDermott sings in the song’s second verse, his anger, grief, confusion, and regret boiling just below the surface. “Scars From Another Life” is no less viscerally powerful, a skyscraping, Springsteenian power ballad whose spacious, reverb-soaked production and floating piano arpeggios immediately position it as the album’s centerpiece cut. McDermott is challenging his demons here, carrying on the battle he was waging on Hey La Hey (and even referencing that album’s title in the song’s emotional refrain), and the result is an uplifting, redemptive, and life-affirming piece of music; there haven’t been more than a handful of better songs written this year.

“She’s Gonna Kill Me” is a pop-laced rocker in the same vein as the title track, while gorgeous piano ballad “Is There a Kiss Left on Your Lips” is its companion. Both songs deal with McDermott’s adjustment to married life, his tendency for staying out late, and the guilt he feels in sneaking back into the house long after everyone else has gone to sleep. The former is all-out fun, turning a situation many of us are familiar with into a rootsy sing-along surrounded by blazing guitars; the latter is even better, a buoyant arrangement built around the perfect poetry that McDermott wrote on his bathroom wall following one of those guilty homecomings. Elsewhere, “Deal with the Devil” is a sustained scorcher, a dark, haunting, and atmospheric slice of Americana that reprises many of Hit Me Back’s major themes (McDermott’s struggle with past crises, his coming-to-terms with his mother’s passing) over a barely repressed electric guitar. And album-highlight “The Silent Will Soon Be Singing” is a flawlessly structured acoustic number, almost Dylanesque in its execution, which recalls the more folky lilt of his last few records without sacrificing the deeply cohesive feel of this one.

The closing duo, composed of the string-soaked “Where the River Meets the Sea” and the appropriately blissful “Italy,” conclude the album in strong fashion. The former feels almost liturgical, graced with a traditional-feeling piano line, a beautiful female backing vocal, and McDermott’s most poignant and passionate delivery on the disc; it’s hardly surprising that the song served as McDermott’s eulogy for his late mother. The latter encompasses every ounce of redemption that McDermott found in Italy, a country that he says changed the course of his life. The harmonica intro evokes Nebraska-era Springsteen, but the lyrical and melodic structures are more reminiscent of Woodie Guthrie, a simplistic sensibility that turns the closer into a “This Land is Your Land” for a new age.

For many listeners, both of these songs (and indeed, this entire record) will drown in excessive sentiment and in classicist songwriting ideals that we’ve all heard before. But McDermott pours every ounce of himself into these songs, tearing down the walls between himself and his audience and cultivating a connection that is sometimes uncomfortable in its intimacy (songs like “Ever After” hit almost too close to home), but which is always striking in its power. These songs left an indelible mark upon me, their moods and feelings refusing to leave even as their final notes drifted away to nothingness, McDermott’s struggles and triumphs becoming my own.

Too few people will ever hear Hit Me Back, but Stephen King was right: McDermott is one of those songwriters whose music is meant to heal you, and there are only a few guys playing the game these days who just naturally have that power. Springsteen has it, for sure; Van Morrison certainly had it, though I haven’t yet heard his new album to confirm that he still does; modern favorites of mine, guys like Will Hoge, Chad Perrone, and Butch Walker (at his most confessional), definitely have it as well. Some will always be uncomfortable with songwriters like these: they will mock them for their earnestness and write them off for not reinventing the wheel, but those people aren’t really listening closely enough. For me, the best songwriters are the ones who, as King says, “give us back ourselves,” the ones who can form the sort of honest, intimate connection with their audience that McDermott forms so easily here, the ones with the ability to write songs that feel positively vital, that get under my skin and change me, even in the smallest way. McDermott may not have fame, but he has the rest of the act down in spades, and Hit Me Back, opening stumbles and all, is arguably his most profound statement to date.

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