Michael Chapman’s new acoustic instrumental solo guitar album reveals the British folkie’s vast creative talents. He marvelously strums, picks, and just takes command of the strings to express feelings both deep and lighthearted at the same time. While the song titles have meanings as the concepts that inspired the compositions, they don’t really matter to the listener. All of the tracks flow within and together to create something of a whole, which can only be described as the persona of Chapman himself.
The real Chapman has a long and checkered history as a musician. He began in the ’60s along with like-minded players such as John Martyn and Roy Harper. He got a major label contract and lots of critical acclaim, but his music output greatly diminished so by the mid-’80s he was barely present. However, from the late ’90s to the present he has been putting out stuff, his old music has been reissued and he’s even been the subject of a tribute record that features such notables as Lucinda Williams and Thurston Moore.
This new release contains Zen-like contemplative items such as “Lament for Nepal”, the syrupy slow “Stockport Monday (For Tom Rush)”, and the gray sounding “March Rain”, but the spare playing always has an energy. The silences ring as loud as the notes do. The more elegant compositions, such as “Vanity and Pride” and “Nima Lama”, flutter like a butterfly. Their inherent beauty evokes transformation. The music consistently changes in some ways while remaining the same in certain ways due to dexterous fingering.
Fans of more well-known artists like Richard Thompson and John Fahey would certainly appreciate Chapman, but they probably already know about him. However, despite Chapman’s recent indie popularity, one worries this album will be neglected. That would be a shame, because Chapman’s music deserves a wide audience. It could serve as a balm between those members of groups that just need to chill, in the best possible Thoreauvian sense.
Which connects to the whole naturalness of the endeavor: just the sound of wood and wire. The Chapman that emerges from the cadences, the pressure on the strings, the rhythms, drones, and repetitions is a warm and friendly fellow. He invites one to loaf, to sit, to reflect. That’s it. No dogma. No karma. Okay, maybe a little karma. That’s why he lifts the spirit with the spritely “Plain Old Bob Has a Hoe Down” and impishly teases with songs like “Jack”. Chapman roguishly plays to create an aura of good vibes.
That is helped by the fact that there are no words. Chapman’s songs frequently have words, but his instrumentals (and this may be his only fully instrumental release; he’s put out more than 40 records five decades and I have not heard them all) can say much more than mere lyrics. On Fish, the lesson is about the music in and of itself, like the beat of one’s heart or the tempo of one’s breath. Here’s to breathing like a fish: glubba glubba, hey!