[26 March 2012]
It is easy to want to root for Al Tuck. The folksy/bluesy singer-songwriter from Prince Edward Island has been making great work for decades now (Julie Doiron, Jason Collett, Sloan’s Chris Murphy, and Leslie Feist are just a few of his fans), but notoriously without the successes that artists with such longevity and vision generally seem to gather. For those who have been following his career, it is hard not to read his mythology (the brilliant but occasionally inconsistent live shows, the legendary will-to-self-sabotage) into his new and eighth album, Under Your Shadow, for a few of the songs on this inspired effort grapple with the deferred desires of workers and wanderers. On the funny and jaunty opener “Slappin’ the Make on You,” the narrator tries to do some drunken wooing around last call: “What’s it gonna take, what’s it gonna take / For you to feel my point of view?” The sombre, traditional-sounding “Saltwater Cowboy” tells of a transient labourer who has gone to Newfoundland to work for “a very low wage”. And the biting but defiant “No Need to Wonder” asks a million-dollar question: “Who do you blow to get somewhere? / Went with the flow but it went nowhere.”
Yet, it makes no difference whether Tuck’s writing about his own tribulations as a troubadour; those who have never heard of him will find a lot to enjoy on the new record. Tuck’s got an eye for the comic absurdity that can emerge from dark situations, and his songs can be as simply joyous as they can be grim: “Gonna have a hot wrapped sandwich and a pickled egg / Gonna get up there and go break a leg.” Like much of his previous work, the album as a whole has a way of juxtaposing insightful metaphor with the beauty of the banal. Although sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Tuck’s really laboured on a line or whether he’s just tossed one off, the effect is a charming and rich mix of attitudes and dispositions, an almost reckless poetics that draws us into his characters and their stories.
Tuck sometimes sounds like Bob Dylan’s more rootsy incarnations. It’s the smoky, strained vocals and the (careless) love he shows for the folk and blues traditions. (Careless because he never hesitates to put his own stamp on things, to blend styles as it suits him, and on this album he’s backed up by a minimalist assortment of sidemen, blending Celtic folk, crooning pop, and low-fi slacker rock.) His style and the centrality of his lyrics might also remind one of Will Oldham, Vic Chesnutt, or even Leonard Cohen. But Tuck’s rye-soaked voice is all his own: “I can’t pretend to care what you’re thinking / I’m not a friend, just a stranger who’s drinking here,” almost willfully wavering in and out of key. And, as much as Al Tuck is from Canada’s East Coast (a few tunes on the album are identifiably set in the Maritimes), on Under Your Shadow he seems to be from both nowhere and anywhere – a songwriter for all times and many places.