[9 February 2006]
Now that Vashti Bunyan has been rescued from oblivion, the Mountain Goats are on a major label, and Jandek is practically booking a stadium tour, esoterica fetishists of the gentler persuasion (i.e., those who shield their ears from the latest eight-track-only Wolf Eyes side project) could do worse than seeking out Mick Stevens. They don’t come much more esoteric: the British singer-songwriter recorded his first two albums in his bedroom in 1972 and 1975, self-releasing them in respective pressings of 30 and 50. Those largely acoustic affairs spent years as expensive underground collector’s items before Shadoks reissued them together in 2004. The label now follows them with Stevens’ next two efforts, The River (1977) and The Englishman (1979). These constituted his final efforts before conceding the futility of a career in music and retiring to start a family (Stevens would die of cancer tragically early in 1987).
Stevens’ frustration with his inability to land a record deal is apparent on both albums, which were also initially self-released. Though he was a talented musician and songwriter, Stevens mediated his folky acoustic side with radio-aimed rock clearly intended to pander to the ears of hit-hungry A&R departments. These songs show their age much more clumsily than do his softer efforts, but altogether these two albums are a strong show of unfairly overlooked artistry. They run remarkably parallel, full of organic intertextual connections that reveal a songwriter with a cohesive vision he never received the opportunity to share.
Both albums open on a rock note. The River offers the stronger song, the surprisingly violent “No Survivors Now”, in which Stevens sings, “I’m gonna pin back your ears, ram it down your throat/People, you’ll sing your own guilt till it makes you choke”, in a visceral narrative intended to reject the complacency of trading in dreams for the comfort of domesticity. From there, both albums downshift into soft rock, with The River again advantageous; its “The Girl Came to Our Town” is an enticing ballad, while The Englishman‘s “Little Miss Freedom” reeks of knee-jerk antifeminism despite its soothing sound.
Stevens shines his brightest while solo, and the acoustic title tracks of both albums stand out, desolate folk laments comparable to Richard Thompson at his bleakest (no coincidence: Stevens toured with Richard and Linda Thompson in between these two albums, in what probably represents his career peak). The stark stygian imagery of “The River” is complemented by “The Other Side of the River,” which likewise holds the closing slot on the later album but trades sorrow for a more hopeful romantic stance. “The Ballad of Lazlo Feher,” a captivating folk narrative of theft, sex, and the cruelty of power, also stands out on The Englishman.
If only Stevens had maintained his folk approach, these albums might have achieved legendary status among the few who knew them. But alas, his rock bent crops up a bit too frequently, with the creaky synthfest “Crazy for Your Love” marring The River (the album also briefly attempts to lift the reverb-drenched guitar sounds of Stevens favorite Steely Dan’s “Haitian Divorce” on “Book Eight,” to unimpressive effect on an otherwise solid song). On the later album, “Drunk By Myself” is an amusingly leering tale of Stevens on the prowl for some easy action; it’s actually a fairly enjoyable ditty, but it breaks the serious tone of the album’s middle stretch. Both albums, too, suffer from a bit of overwrought bird imagery. “The Eagle and Me” on The Englishman is hokey enough, but its avian muse at least flies with brevity; “Suite (To a Seagull)” weighs The River down with a 20-minute prog-folk epic that sounds like a Richard Bach book scored by Yes. Which, to be honest, is far better than one might expect, but still a bit overextended.
Despite such shortcomings, both albums make persuasive cases for Stevens as an artist of note. Extras include a home-recorded 1978 take on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” that shows Stevens’ capacity to play the blues with feeling, and a radio interview from that same year in which he poignantly expresses hope that he can make a living off music. He couldn’t, though all indications suggest he spent the years before his untimely death quite happy, unburdened by his lack of musical success. These reissued albums prove the fault for that failure was not entirely his own.