Tom Blackwell : St. Mary's, Chester, 2019

Tom Blackwell : Memphis Volume IV


I last ran into Tom Blackwell in a side street Georgian pub near his Liverpool home, just before the world slipped from calm to roiling viral chaos.

We sat in a small side-room with high ceilings, surrounded by the low murmur of Saturday afternoon conversation.

Early spring sunlight streamed through 200-year-old windows; from a framed tour poster Bob Dylan peered quizzically into the room over a pair of reading glasses.

His lyrics may often express rootless themes, but Blackwell seems settled in the socially mixed, unforced bohemia of the patch of city where he lives. Conversationally he matched the ambience of the bar - in life as understated as his music, speaking affably but with a sharp wit. As he talks, you sense how vital he holds the integrity of his current work.

Blackwell is progressing through his entire back catalogue of self-penned songs, recording them in roughly the order they were written, for a series of solo albums - each identified simply by the title 'Memphis' and a volume number. There are reviews of Volume II and III already on the site.

Working alone, he employs voice (at times an almost wordless instrument), guitar and plaintive harmonica to express the emotional essence of each composition.

Volume IV is the most sophisticated set so far. There are nine tracks. Each is a low-key, artfully crafted joy.

A lonely, mournful harmonica edges the measured regret of the opening song Evelyn into life. From there you should be lost to what you hear.

The soft-shoed swing of Eye for an Eye, or the divine songs Oh Babe, Head Over Heels and Swans might nudge ahead in your affections, but finding anything on this album as an actual bona fide highlight is a fool's errand; its brilliance is end-to-end.

Blackwell recorded each track with two microphones in an adapted room in his flat. The technological constraints seem to enhance the colour and texture of the music, not lessen it. Silence cushions each note or phrase.

A few bars from any of the songs here are enough to show that Blackwell has learnt the deep musical language and grammar of Americana - distilled emotively to the resonance of huge cloudless skies and broken-hearted, aching soul.

Yet, as much as Tom Blackwell can be spell-binding live, his gigs are rare. No matter. He might be on a solitary creative road for now, but, as he continues to record almost unheeded, Memphis Volume IV confirms that he is undoubtedly one of England's finest singer-songwriters.