Kevin Rowland has never been averse to a touch of aggrandisement. So there should be no surprise that the title of his new album should indulge in some third-person referencing. But we should cut Rowland some slack. If Dexys (or Dexys Midnight Runners, as they have been known for nearly all of a 35-year plus career) have proven they are capable of, it’s two things: 1) Irish and Celtic authenticity (which threads through much of 1982’s Too Rye Ay album and much else beside: for example the “Celtic Soul Brothers” immortal refrain, “More Please and Thank You”); and 2) Soul (which they nailed on their first album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, and above all on their indestructible UK number one “Geno”, Rowland’s adrenalized tribute to Geno Washington).
Since those early ’80s days — whose zenith came in the form of a U.S. number one, “Come on Eileen” — Rowland’s life and times have ebbed, flowed and on occasions hit big lows. He has discarded sidemen and women, band members and associates like a sports franchise owner. He has searched, mostly in vain, for the pure, tortured incorruptible of this younger days, and has had his mental health issues. That three-decade pursuit has now culminated at a point where the maverick Rowland may just have come home.
Let the Record is a collection that on first inspection makes no particular rationale. What would a cover of Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” have to do with one of the most traditional Irish airs, Carrickfergus? A smart running order helps, but it’s the performance from Rowland and his cultured set of musicians that pulls the project off.
Rowland’s original intention to was to soundtrack an entire album’s worth of Irish folk songs. Somewhere along the line he got diverted by the desire to throw some pop covers in there as well. Unfortunately, his first two choices for cover versions give the record a sluggish start. The performance on the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” is too mannered. Rowland sounds like he’s reading the lyric sheet out, undermining the pained declaration of unrequited love propelling the song’s message. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is delivered at half-throttle, addressed too politely.
Thereafter Dexys switch more seamlessly than you might imagine between the Irish traditional and the pop tracks. “The Curragh of Kildare” hits an effortless groove and is enlivened by some passionate female counterpoint to the Rowland vocal. “You Wear It Well”, always one of the newly-knighted Stewart’s more under-rated smashes, has a jaunty, intimate feel. Leanne Rimes’ “How Do I Live”, which has suffered from too much radio exposure over the years, is re-interpreted by Rowland as a genuine scream of bewilderment. “Grazing in the Grass” is a joy, the backing vocals straight off the conveyor belt of ’70s Soul Train.
Rowland and the band (comprising core musicians Sean Read and Lucy Morgan, plus associates such as violinist Helen O’Hara, reunited with Dexys for the first time since 1987) save even more treats for the last three tracks of the album. The rendition of Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well” is impeccably arranged and paced; and Rowland’s depiction of a hometown disfigured by the troubles in Northern Ireland assumes the modern aspect of a place and people left behind by globalisation. Straight up, the band take on “Both Sides Now”, a wonderful song that would be easy to wreck, but the execution here swings and gives the lyrics a positive aura its plethora of covers have usually eschewed. The Irish folk song “Carrickfergus” concludes the album as a full stop ending to Rowland’s journey, content and at peace.
The one other clunker is “I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen”, which slips into dirge territory. But, taken in the round, Let the Record is an unexpected pleasure; and a late career highlight for the man who wrote the manual on nonconformism.