Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better
— Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
After a year that became, in his own words, “a bit of a lost weekend”, Michael J. Sheehy has returned with more tales from the dark side of the human condition.
On his 2000 solo debut, Sweet Blue Gene, Sheehy blended the sacred and the profane, mixing American gospel and British hymnal traditions with blues, country, rock’n’roll, and even passages of industrial menace, all the while carving a niche for himself alongside the Marc Almonds, the Stuart Stapleses, and the Nick Caves of this world. In his songs, Sheehy didn’t avoid the sordid, the painful, and the dysfunctional; rather, he immersed himself in such things and charted landscapes ranging from the dimly lit and sleazy to the altogether noir and sinister.
Sheehy’s work, like that of Cave and Almond, is laced with a healthy dose of black humour. But he also shares with these peers his lyrical roots in the naturalist tradition — insofar as the lives of the characters who populate his records are doomed by heredity or environment, or by a mixture of the two. “[A] sense of human failure informs a lot of my songwriting”, Sheehy has commented and, in keeping with this deterministic narrative, his songs chronicle declines and falls in glorious detail, warts and all. If, at the start of a number, it seems that things couldn’t get any worse, there’s a fair chance that, by the end, they will have. A case in point from the first album would be the pared-down swamp-blues number “Oh Sweet Jesus”, in which the fruits of young love are separation, abortion, and insanity.
Although the extended lost weekend that followed Sweet Blue Gene culminated in a week in hospital, Sheehy’s second solo effort since the demise of the Dream City Film Club finds the short bald fella — as he refers to himself — going from strength to strength. While it’s perhaps not as stripped-down and raw, there’s a definite sense of continuity here both musically and lyrically, something that’s emphasised by the fact that the first track on Ill Gotten Gains has the same title as his first album.
Many of the same musical reference points are in evidence here as Sheehy’s songs draw on earlier American rock’n’roll and its constitutive blues and country elements. Sheehy’s love of that genre finds maximum expression in a version of Junior Parker and Sam Phillips’ “Mystery Train”, a song done most famously by Elvis of course. This is quite a feat in itself. To revisit one of rock’s most covered numbers is generally not advisable except perhaps as some kind of novelty venture in the live context, but this reworking of the standard is entirely successful as its weighty groove gives the track a welcome twist of originality.
Sheehy’s influences manifest themselves in more than cover versions, however, as he skillfully works rock’n’roll motifs into his own songs. “Sweet Blue Gene”, for instance, artfully approximates the thinner production characteristic of early rock, whereas “Wha’Cha Gonna Do?” incorporates ingredients such as reverb and sassy female backing vocals into a beat-laden, heavier, contemporary rock package. Here Sheehy tells a characteristically bleak story in which everything goes to hell in a hand-basket: following an unplanned pregnancy, the protagonist resorts to drug-pushing and using the “merchandise” herself.
“I love dissonance . . . it stops things from getting boring”, Sheehy says, and while there’s very little danger of a dull moment on Ill Gotten Gains, that harsher, noisier edge is deployed to full effect on “Michael Jnr”, with its hefty, distorted guitar fuzz. And you can forget the likes of Emile Zola — naturalism is alive and well in London. “Michael Jnr” is something like “A Boy Named Sue” for a post-acid house generation. Sheehy sneers a warped father-to-son tale of drugs, promiscuity, club-toilet conceptions, and possible mental illness — the son cursed by the mixture of “chemicals” in his genes. Perhaps more than any other track on the album, this foregrounds Sheehy’s talents as a storyteller, as he manages to weave together character and plot within the confines of a four-and-a-half minute song.
While Sheehy’s music is shot through with irony, that dimension is perhaps most effective on his quieter, more sparse songs. This is unlike his previous album, on which the least ironic moments were often to be found in the haunting acoustic ballads; there, Sheehy showed a rare ability to deliver intensely affecting songs without lapsing into unbridled earnestness. On the new album, however, there lurks a wicked sense of humour beneath the melodic and emotive surfaces of the more restrained numbers: his bluesy meditation on masochism, “Some People Love to Get Hurt”, the Hammond-enhanced “Tired Old Love Song”, and the spare, lilting “Let It Be Love This Time”. This is particularly true of the latter, the album’s closer. Its hymnal feel is pronounced; Sheehy croons beautifully about deliverance and the healing power of love. Yet it’s only if you listen carefully that you realise he’s praying to be delivered from — among other things — the lustful tyranny of his own “dick”.
Of all Sheehy’s narratives of failure on Ill Gotten Gains, the highlight is undoubtedly the soulful “No One Recognised Him”. Supported by a female choir, he half-whispers a boxer’s tragic tale of corruption, disgrace, and unfulfilled potential. Not an original story by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s not the point — the way it’s executed here is stunning.
At some level, Sheehy could be seen as a musical counterpart of Ken Loach. Sheehy’s naturalist vision is often articulated in terms of a similar kitchen-sink realism and his is a view of the world not unlike that of the filmmaker. The main difference is that, in Sheehy’s work, there’s even less chance of a happy ending. Although this is communicated lyrically, the words are but part of the bigger musical picture. Sheehy draws heavily on the genres — blues and country — that, at some level, have always been the melancholy soundtrack to failed aspirations, loss, dejection and so forth.
You certainly wouldn’t wish a “lost year” on anyone, but if such a thing yields albums like Ill Gotten Gains, then you can’t help hoping that Sheehy eschews sobriety and continues to trawl the seamier side of life for more song fodder.