Deacon Blue have sold around 7 million albums worldwide since releasing their debut in 1987, with sales in the US accounting for approximately three of these. To the uninitiated in the States, therefore, it might be said that the six-piece group are Springsteen-esque in nature, being to their Scottish home city of Glasgow what the Boss and the E Street Band are to Asbury Park. And though they’re likely weary of the comparison by now, there’s no doubt that they started out demonstrating an affinity with the Glaswegian working class on songs like “Dignity”. They then made their people proud by catapulting a string of passionate and melodic rock songs into the UK Top 40 in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That was while they gained renown for their hugely energetic live shows, where legions of loyal fans would punch the air and go properly nuts for Glasgow vignettes “Real Gone Kid”, “Wages Day”, and “Fergus Sings the Blues”.
Unlike Springsteen, Deacon Blue ceased to exist between 1994 and 1999. They then suffered the loss of founder member Graeme Kelling to pancreatic cancer in 2004. Out of the game for a while, they didn’t really rekindle their fire as a fully functioning unit until 2008, when guitarist and songwriter Gregor Philp entered the fold. The new boy joined forces with lead singer and original songsmith Ricky Ross to write fresh material that eventually came to fruition as The Hipsters in 2012. It was this release that returned the band to the Top 20 of the UK album charts and signaled a creative renaissance, ending their time in compilation purgatory. They followed it up with A New House in 2014, and Believers in 2016, which brings us, four years later, to City of Love.
It’s clear from the off that Deacon Blue are all about crowd-pleasers on the new LP, with a firm eye on recapturing their glory days. They aim for singalong tunes that will stand proud with old favorites at their outdoor shows this summer (one of which is in support of fellow Glaswegian stalwarts Simple Minds), as well as on their extensive UK tour in the fall. You’ll consequently find no experimental stuff here. Nothing improvised on a Prophet-6 synthesizer or incorporating a groovebox drum machine. No roping in of Danger Mouse as a producer, or Nigel Godrich. Or Fuck Buttons.
What we have, instead, is Ricky Ross leading the way on 11 open-hearted and largely sentimental songs with big choruses and traditional rock instruments. His voice is every bit as powerful and guttural as it was. There’s Lorraine McIntosh, too, providing similarly unwithered backing vocals on every track, still with that ability to lift a song, and still causing people (who should know better) to muddle the group with Prefab Sprout. If there’s any difference to the band of old, it’s that they project a more pronounced country influence on many of the tracks, developed from excellent early hit “Chocolate Girl”. That could be down to Philp, who now has a sideline as a guitar player for Nashville singer-songwriter Kevin Montgomery. But, whatever the source, it blends well with the whole survivor thing they have going on here, of having been through the mill and having found hope.
The lead single “City of Love” is, without a doubt, the standout track, with its driving strings, rousing vocals, gospel choir, and the kind of chiming guitar chords the Edge would be proud of. The melody recalls Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, and the sentiment is reminiscent of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge”, but it’s pure Deacon Blue in terms of its uplifting power. It’s a paean to Glasgow as a city of healing social connection, where the singer, seemingly disillusioned and disenfranchised, can lay down his emotional burden: “What can I do with all of this? / Where can I put what I’m carrying?” Just imagine it at the band’s homecoming show.
“Hit Me Where It Hurts” touches on another aspect of hope by venturing into slightly darker territory. It’s a big song with plenty of drama, care of its ominous bass line, jittery chorus, and a line borrowed from none other than Lady Macbeth. “Who’d have ever thought / One man had so much blood in him,” Ross sings, which must relate to being consumed by guilt over a dead relationship, just as the Shakespearean figure is undone by guilt over her role in the murder of Duncan in Macbeth. Maybe. In any case, it’s the nearest we come to cryptic on the album (never Deacon Blue’s thing). And happily, the protagonist in the song finds new love in his battered state: “I was on the run from love / Till you / Hit me where it hurts.”
Elsewhere, Deacon Blue offer up positively beautiful melodies and some moments of real poignancy in relation to getting through troubled times. This is no more apparent than on the ballad “Weight of the World”, which greatly recalls Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street”, especially with its “Tonight, tonight, we’ll go driving” chorus. “In Our Room” is a comparably lovely bit of country rock, this time bringing to mind the Richard Marx tune “Hazard”. No bad thing. But “A Walk in the Woods” really achieves those melodic heights of old, on which we find McIntosh in true Emmylou Harris mode as she harmonizes gloriously with Ross. The same can be said of “Wonderful” and “Come on In”, the latter featuring some exquisite steel guitar.
If there’s anything at all edgy here, then it’s “Keeping My Faith Alive”, but only in so far as Bon Jovi’s more bluesy moments are edgy. This is where you hear Philp’s tasty guitar skills to the fore, and where Ross goes all “Gimme Some Truth” on the lyrics: “And while I listened to political junkies / And all that shuck and jive / I’m keeping my faith alive.” On the other hand, “Intervals” might be considered too darn schmaltzy, ahead of the epic and intimate finale of “On Love”. It’s good to hear Ross spread his wings on this last one, as he talks his way through the verses, reminisces about life in Glasgow, and provides touching insights on growing old.
Whatever Ross has to say, it is hope, above all, that prevails on Deacon Blue’s City of Love. With songs like these, the band can be hopeful of selling out arenas for a good while yet.