Album Reviews

Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman

(Decor) UK release date: 27 January 2017

Mark Eitzel - Hey Mr Ferryman Mark Eitzel is one of those names that’s probably destined to remain forever critically adored, while commercially ignored. In his heyday as frontman of San Francisco’s American Music Club, he produced a whole string of albums that were gloriously melancholic yet filled with black humour. They influenced a whole new generation of acts (Low, The National and early Elbow all owe a huge debt to AMC), but the average person would be hard-pressed to name a song by them.

It’s obviously a situation that suits Eitzel perfectly well. In fact, since he suffered a massive heart attack in 2012, and dealt with the death of two of his former bandmates, his solo work seems to have picked up a new lease of life. Hey Mr Ferryman, like his last record Don’t Be A Stranger, has a lightness of touch about it that may shock those who only know him from the often tortured  AMC.

This time around, former Suede guitarist turned producer extraordinaire Bernard Butler is on production duties, and he’s given Eitzel an almost poppy sheen. It’s a sound that will be familiar to anyone who’s heard any of Butler’s other production work – opening track The Last 10 Years has the same glorious sweep that defined songs like McAlmont & Butler‘s Yes, or Ben Watt‘s recent solo work.

Lyrically, Eitzel is as sardonic as ever. The Last 10 Years was apparently originally written for American Music Club, but, given Eitzel’s recent brush with mortality, it’s impossible not to recognise the titular ferryman in the song (“the ferryman who takes me to my rest/he don’t give a damn who’s cursed or blessed”) as some form of grim reaper; nevertheless, lines like  “I’ve never been to Hell, but they’ve got my number” are delivered with an almost carefree insouciance.

There’s plenty of self-deprecating humour too: a title like In My Role As Professional Singer And Ham should give you some idea of where Eitzel’s mindset is these days, while the song itself is a stunningly atmospheric mid-paced ballad with plenty of guitar work from Butler, as Eitzel wails “instead of a cane, I got this broken soul”, or “when you look at me, I look away”. And, as ever with Eitzel, he populates his songs with characters that would sit well in the pages of a pulp novel: the ageing gambler in An Angel’s Wing Touched The Penny Slots or the former TV star Mr Humphries (“he even had a catchphrase of his own”), now seeing out his last days in a lonely hotel room.

Eitzel’s at his best, though, when he plays it straight – the gorgeous, lilting ballad An Answer has a string section to give goosebumps and a haunting chorus (“You’re always on my mind, I can’t leave you behind/You make me want to stick around and find if there’s an answer”) which suggests that, beneath all the dark humour and self-loathing, Eitzel has found happiness.

Admittedly there are sometimes a few too many overwrought guitar solos – moments where Eitzel and Butler may have been better off toning things down – but overall this is a surprising new partnership that works very well indeed. Hopefully, that ferryman won’t be arriving to take Eitzel away any time soon.

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Mark Eitzel – Hey Mr Ferryman
Mark Eitzel – Don’t Be A Stranger
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