For his first solo venture, the ex-frontman of the now defunct Dream City Film Club decided that he wanted to record an album his parents would like. Although that might not sound like the best way of going about making a particularly thrilling record, Michael J. Sheehy has, nevertheless, come up with a real gem here. Whether or not his parents will actually enjoy it is another matter.
Set within a decidedly bleak lyrical landscape of fraught relationships, crises of faith, betrayal, and death, Sweet Blue Gene runs the musical gamut from lingering ballads to industrial waltzes—a diverse repertoire that gestures to an equally broad array of influences, among them This Mortal Coil, PJ Harvey, Barry Adamson, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams.
“Oh Sweet Jesus” is a chugging, harmonica-driven, gospel-blues swamp thing. This tale of abortion, insanity and remorse gives Nick Cave a run for his money in the noir stakes and is more chilling insofar as it’s shorn of the camp excesses that often make such brilliant comedy of Cave’s work.
The hypnotic, stripped-down funk of “Everything is Beautiful” conjures up an unsettling sense of menace which undermines its cheery title. Similarly threatening is the unusual “Auditory Nerves,” a dark ambient piece looped around a monologue on the physiological and neurological workings of fear—think Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” crossed with Hawkwind’s “Sonic Attack.”
Elsewhere, Sheehy takes the opportunity to get a few things off his chest, telling it like it is on the brooding cocktail blues of “Cross.” Alluding to the kind of sleaze and sordidness which Marc Almond would document in all its gory, shameful detail, “Cross” is a weary, “I’ve-had-it-up-to-here,” final brush-off directed at that friend we’ve all had who tries to take over our life with his or her problems. Much more aggressive is “I Shame You With My Kisses,” a song about betrayal which proves that revenge is a dish best served up in manic, fairground, 3/4 time—musically like Colin Newman’s “The Classic Remains”—complete with distorted and vaguely deranged vocals.
Although the album as a whole is a tour de force of songwriting, most compelling are the simple, melodic tracks that emphasize what is perhaps the essence of Sheehy’s talent: namely, an ability to articulate a highly subjective vision—often imbued with raw emotion—and to render that personal moment vivid through a deceptively straightforward musical framework.
On “Just Love Me,” with its minimal, taut guitar, rustle of keyboards and percussion, Sheehy’s plaintive vocals respond—not without irony—to a lover’s infidelity. “Daddy Is a Good Man” revisits childhood and the manipulations of an estranged father, its understated piano and vocal melody placing it somewhere between This Mortal Coil and Pink Floyd.
In its most powerful moments, Sweet Blue Gene resonates with the affective tenor of some of the finest hymns. Notable in this regard is the version of the Virgin Prunes’ “Sweet Home Under White Clouds”—made all the more poignant by its almost stationary, mournful piano and haunting strings. However, the real standout is “I Can’t Comfort You Anymore,” on which Sheehy’s measured, soulful vocals and simple guitar accompaniment coalesce into a resigned, intimate meditation on matters of faith.
Compared with a great deal of independent and alternative fare whose lyrics never venture far from the easy confines of fashionable self-reflexivity or cynicism, Sheehy is bold in his willingness to tackle pain and melancholy without glorifying misery. Instead, he conveys something meaningful but ultimately inarticulable. His principle strength resides in an ability to write lyrics that have no pretensions to being poetry, a trap into which many songwriters fall when they do actually attempt to express something of substance, often with the unfortunate result of sounding earnest and sincere in the worst possible ways.
Sheehy knows his place as a songwriter and he knows the place of words in the overall canvas of the song: he neither places excessive weight on his words nor does he dress them in literary devices. Paradoxically—as is the case with the most accomplished songwriters—it’s often not necessary to understand the words independently, since their meaning is rendered in the shape and feel of the music itself and in Sheehy’s richly emotive voice.
In the case of the closing track, “The Licensing Song,” this process becomes wryly ironic. Although the song has a moving sonorous gravity to it—stemming largely from its melodic citation of the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”—Sheehy is in fact singing about the sorry state of British pub opening hours and the classic country-music scenario of a man left with no woman and no more booze.
All in all, Michael J. Sheehy’s short—although not particularly sweet—solo debut is a slight masterpiece from a considerable talent and a versatile songwriter.