Dead Man's Lullaby
DEAD MAN’S LULLABY is heart felt, dark blue music coming from a far away place that few of us ever come close to. Jimmy Dowling inhabits that place, one of wonder and imagination, but at the same time rich in experience and authenticity.
Dowling has lived the life of the troubadour interspersed with stints of hard manual labour on the land and sea, a life that is reflected in the deep well of feeling showcased here on his first full-length release. He takes an intriguing mixture of head in the clouds whimsy, unashamed romanticism, the simple minutiae of life and love, and a gritty, sometimes violent reality to construct remarkably effective and endearing songs.
A laconic, crooning vocal delivery that is at one moment soothing and the next intensely moving and Dowling’s jazzy, finger picked acoustic guitar are outstanding throughout. Embellished by soaring pedal steel from the brilliant Garret Costigan and Shannon Bourne’s subtly economical, yet powerful electric guitar, the instrumentation is rounded out by Mark Elton’s double bass, quietly sympathetic percussion from Roger Bergodaz, plus accordion, fiddle, harmonica and ullienn pipes.
Hangin’ is a beautifully moody, introspective entrée to Sunken Glass, a song that encapsulates the Dowling style. The comfort of intimate yet curiously mundane moments with a lover is seen through the “once grand windows of a draughty old house.” A gorgeous, swelling instrumental interlude precedes a journey to the unforgiving sea. Here the “roaring forties, making mountains out of water” bring the unforgiving power of the elements into vivid focus. The question of whether the trawler men “oughta be in, or stayin’ out” is a life or death judgement, and this hauntingly intense song puts the seaman’s dilemma before us as a metaphor for the uncertainties of our existence.
The recording moves through some fond musings on The Gate, “standing in the wind waiting on someone, hoping for anything,” to reflections on despair, regret and loss on Dead Man’s Lullaby, and a chance meeting with an intriguing, seductive stranger on the poignant Emily Gardiner’s Ghost.
The sombre instrumental Southern Grey leads to a hellish excursion into the savagery of convict transportation on Stale Bread. The convict knows that his custodians “will give me no mercy, spare me no tears” as he embarks on a terrifying voyage to the fatal shore. For the stale bread he stole he is taken far away from his girl and the salt spray is eating away at the lacerations from brutal floggings. Among the “sighin’ and the groanin’ and the dyin’ down in this festering scurvied hull” he is chained and bound on “an evil ship, sailing to the end of the world.” He is beaten but not broken and has reserved a gutful of vitriol for his tormentors. He cultivates retribution, pledging to someday “burn out yer eyes, and smash out yer teeth, yer dirty rotten dogs, yer mongrels.” It is sweet relief for us to return to the nostalgic grace of The Easter Basket, which, while gritty and real, is to the last keening note a song of sublime gentleness.
DEAD MAN’S LULLABY sounds old-timey, but not in any contrived way. Jimmy Dowling has got the goods. He’s not retro, and he’s not alternative, just a genuine, literate, earthy voice of the places from where he comes. This worthy collection is all at once tender, savage, off kilter, and lovely.
Michael D Hansen : July 2009