Philip Lewin was not unlike many sensitive, creative souls of the late 1960s. He attended college for a bit, was a better-than-average amateur musician, and he suffered his share of youthful heartbreak. After moving to Toronto, the expatriate American self-released the collection of original compositions Am I Really Here All Alone? in 1975.
In the years since, that album has gained a following among fans of private press recordings and is considered a classic example of loner folk, a mildly psychedelic, melancholy, highly personal subgenre. Original pressings of the record list for upwards of $750.00. Tompkins Square adds Lewin’s rare and revered album to their reissue series, making these delicate and idiosyncratic recordings available to a wider audience.
The album, while obviously an amateur production, fits comfortably into its time frame and will be appreciated by fans of introspective songwriting and lo-fi music-making. One can hear, as well, a British folk revival influence in Lewin’s gentle mix of folk tradition and mild psychedelia. In particular, it sounds like he was paying close attention to Richard Thompson’s airy, electronic counterpoints that defined the Fairport Convention sound. Vocally, Lewin resembles another outsider iconoclast, Roky Erikson, with his lazy, speak-singing drawl. In all, it makes for a pleasant and welcoming collection. If there’s nothing ground-breaking to be discovered here, nor is there anything off-putting; the record’s positive notoriety is justified.
It’s all a very 1970s affair: honest, naive, and vaguely spiritual. The record finds its romantic young songwriter searching for something beyond the mendacities of the physical self and falling into gentle, if predictable, melancholy. “Then the rain came and washed away the watercolors of my dreams”, he sings on “Watercolors”, “And the same day I walked away from the emptiness of what I’d seen.” Pretty, indistinct images reaching for philosophical depth; it’s endearingly dated. Witness, “Soul of a Lady”: “Seems like only yesterday love was surviving / Got to lose this feeling before I die.” The album’s title cut, a subtly darker take on isolation and despair, ends the record with chilling effect, as Lewin sings “Sleep tight / Sleep tight / Goodbye”, the song’s arrangement looser, bordering more closely to unhinged than any of the preceding cuts.
In all, this is a compelling piece of outsider art. That’s a term more often used in association with artists whose lack of self-awareness is surpassed only by their lack of talent, but it seems a more apt description of folks like Lewin, who have made moving artistic statements outside of the standard modes of commercial distribution. Fans of outsider art often cite sincerity as a primary endearment. Lewin’s sincerity is on full display throughout these songs; what’s more, he has the musical chops to make them worth repeated listens. This is an album worth adding to a late-night or rainy-day mix.