Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Will Varley's fifth album sees a step change in terms of delivery in more ways than one. Having seemingly tired of the odd comic ditty (you'll find nothing approaching 'Self Checkout Shuffle' or 'A Monkey On A Rock' on this album), he's also gone and got himself a full blown backing band to help enhance and elaborate upon his performance. It's as if Varley has finally accepted some sort of perceived view that to make a bigger breakthrough, to become more successful, to appeal to a much wider audience, he should listen to the advice he's no doubt been given, and embrace it. Combined with his raised profile, due in part to some priceless endorsements that include, tellingly, Billy Bragg, notable support slots with the likes of Frank Turner, Beans On Toast and The Proclaimers, as well as his own stand-out solo gigs, Will's stars would appear to be finally aligned.
'Spirit Of Minnie' sees Will in more of a reflective and contemplative mood than ever. The mantra of only being taken seriously as an artist if you are a serious artist has undoubtedly come to manifest itself on Will's third release for Xtra Mile Records. In comparison to his earlier album releases there is certainly a distinct lack of attitude and petulance on his latest full length release. Gone are his digs and swipes at authority, his challenging and revolutionary stance, his militant or 'angry' voice. The protest singer in his younger self has not so much been silenced as subdued. Is it that he's just maturing or could he be selling out? Most likely, it is neither; merely just a foray into slightly unfamiliar territory, an exploration, a chance to experiment and diversify for one of our most emotive musical story-tellers.
The addition of a backing band five albums in is not entirely unexpected (all the great singer-songwriters have dallied with it during their careers) and has varying effects throughout. At times you barely register the difference as Varley's songs hold up to close scrutiny when paired back to the most minimal of arrangements. However, on a couple of occasions, you are left to wonder if elaboration is absolutely necessary (the revolving steel guitar, with its inherent Country twang on 'Statues' and the addition of mandolin on 'Let It Slide' sit less comfortably in the arrangements, for example). The band are by no means intrusive but they do from time-to-time change the whole dynamic of Will's performance on his latest release.
Varley's follow up to his well received, critically acclaimed 2016 album 'Kingsdown Sundown' is a nine track album produced by Cameron McVey. McVey has some notable production credits to his name; Neneh Cherry, All Saints and Sugababes among them. Although having helped shape the sound of some of our most memorable pop acts, McVey's touch does not seem to have impacted either positively or detrimentally on 'Spirit Of Minnie'; Will's soulful folk 'sound' having been largely preserved.
The album opener, 'All Those Stars', picks up on themes discussed by Will on his third album, 'Postcards From Ursa Minor'. With a shuffling percussive undercurrent layered over by Will's slightly raspy soulful vocal and crisp acoustic guitar, you hear that familiarity and ease with which Varley can impart an unravelling story. His search to find meaning among the mayhem and mess of the world has clearly only just begun. Here, Will not only flags up his own self exploration but also how it may be impacting on those closest to him. The more upbeat rhythms of 'Seven Days' follow on with a song equally preoccupied with connections and relationships (this song is as close as you get to a tangible link to some of Will's more humorous earlier compositions). The harmonies and melodies that are given up through 'Seven Days' make it one of the most immediate and engaging on the album.
Despite some of the changes that Will has introduced on his latest album, 'Spirit Of Minnie' remains a very Varley album at its heart. 'Breaking The Bread' is an archetypal Will Varley song recounting memories from his past with a poetic romanticism. "If your heart is an ocean then I am a sinking ship", he sings. The unobtrusive instrumentation that accompanies Will serves to enhance the atmospheric tale with barely-there percussion, occasional piano and a gloriously symbiotic violin. Taking us on a journey growing up through his childhood to marriage, Will weaves his lyrical magic to transport you into his world. The title track is similarly evocative and has an equally compelling narrative. Will's ability to condense such a structured, detailed and engaging story line into such a brief time frame is what sets his songwriting apart from many of his contemporaries. As the night unfolds before you, he draws you further in to his vivid depiction where visualisation of his descriptions are impossible not to see.
Penultimate track 'The Postman' is where Will and his band combine to produce a track that is fully joined up. On 'Postcards', everything feels totally organic; you forget any amalgamation and just hear the splendour of the resultant product, musicians working in unison to produce great music. Starting as a postman on his rounds, Will slowly builds his song gradually as it rises majestically to a magnificent electrifying crescendo. You can feel the song gaining momentum and energy but it is not until the closing sequence that it gives up all of its pent up frenzied glory.
Whilst I may have a few minor reservations around Will's modest change in direction there is no doubt that 'Spirit Of Minnie' remains a very good album. The songs are still the stars. The lyrics, as ever, resonate and connect ("I lost it all as the winter loses to the spring") and Will's relaxed soulful vocal continues to impart warmth, truth and tenderness. Will's ability to craft a song with such a strong narrative and tremendous characterisation is clearly undiminished. 'Spirit Of Minnie' should hopefully bring him his just rewards as he shares his next chapter to a much wider audience.