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Following his stint in the Humblebums and Steelers Wheel, Gerry Rafferty went solo and garnered the biggest hit of his entire career, the mostly autobiographical Baker Street, which was reputed to give him a very comfortable living ever after from the royalties alone. Whether his constant striving to equal or better that song over the following years had any bearing on his slow descent into alcoholism, I can't say, but there's no denying that his fondness for the drink led to his somewhat early death aged 63 at the beginning of last year. His death was a great shame as it had seemed as though he had put his personal problems behind him and was getting his life back on track. In 2009 he'd released this album which included not only a few new songs but also reprised some of his earlier work, covered a Beatles song and even gave us a piece of religious plainsong and a couple of Christmas carols. The album doesn't quite take the listener from the sacred to the profane but it's a curiously pleasant melange of the spiritual, the religious and the secular.
I can't review this CD without mentioning the cover which is absolutely beautiful. Designed by John Byrne, in shades of bronze and turquoise, and depicting carved early Christian images bordered by filigree flowers, it's a piece of art in itself and that's before we even get to the music.
The 18 track CD begins with a religious piece, demonstrating that Gerry was still a good Catholic boy at heart. It's the rather mournful 'Kyrie Elieson' in which he seems to blend elements of monastic plainsong with sonorous Buddhist chanting. It's a very repetitive, almost hypnotic sound with the tempo measured out by a single drum beat and a tinkling bell, adding to the East meets West theme of Buddhist and Catholic ceremony. This is followed by the up-tempo, pop-meets-country 'Waters of Forgetfulness', originally recorded on his 'Over My Head' album. He's stuck pretty much to the same production values with plaintive acoustic guitar and wall of percussion and his light, somewhat other-worldly voice seems to be coming from far away. This isn't my favourite track on the album but it certainly moves the mood from the sacred to the secular.
One of Gerry Rafferty's more recent hits comes next, 'Don't Speak of My Heart'. This is a deceptively simple ballad and, like much of his work, is probably autobiographical in origin. Due to his drinking, his marriage broke down though he and his wife remained on friendly terms. The split obviously had an effect on Gerry and the song is full of heartbreak and wounded sensibilities. We've all been there.
'Every day's an endless maze
Of dreams that fade and die
No-one believed that we'd say goodbye
Every night I think of you
And still am wondering why
I can't believed that we've said goodbye'
The backing is fully orchestrated but never so much as to overshadow Gerry's voice or the emotion of the song.
The mood remains fairly downbeat and spiritual with a cover of the Lennon-McCartney song 'Because'. The track begins with a harpsichord intro more akin to a piece by Handel giving the song a Baroque feel with the harmonies created by double tracking his own voice. I can't say I've ever liked this song much, even when performed by the Beatles, it's rather monotonous in tone and though Gerry gives it a slightly different spin it still sounds pretty dirge-like.
This is followed by the pop sounds of 'Everytime I Wake Up' and 'Love and Affection' before we get to the excellent 'Land of the Chosen Few'. The Bob Dylan influence is fairly evident in this folk ballad with the lyrics harking back to Gerry's Catholic roots.
'Now everyone's a refugee on this planet Purgatory
We only find reality in the land of the chosen few'
As the song is rooted in the British folk tradition, the backing is kept simple and acoustic which allows Gerry's voice and lyrics to be heard to full effect.
The title track is a full-on pop song complete with full orchestration including strident trumpets and saxophone and a beat that is decidedly 1980s. The theme, again, seems to be coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage but because of the up-beat tempo, it doesn't come across as a depressing song. Having said that, it's also not a song which will stick in the mind either as it just doesn't seem to have a hook.
'Another World' is a slow ballad which on first listening seems rather bland but it's one that after a couple listens will stay with you. The backing is percussion and organ and Gerry's voice sounds a little like John Lennon here. This is followed by 'Time's Caught Up On You', originally on his 'Wing and a Prayer' album. It's a mid-tempo pop song with some folk elements and lyrics which give it a reflective quality.
'Conscious Love' seems to be a song about his personal situation and the fact that nobody can heal him except himself. Despite the sombre nature of the lyrics, the song itself is fairly upbeat and has a real deep South, country feel to the music and a great middle section featuring organ and girl backing singers, adding an almost gospel sound into the mix. This is definitely one of the strongest songs on the album. Another strong song follows, the title track from the 'Over My Head' album reprised here although this is a more acoustic version, just Gerry, piano and some gentle backing strings here and there, giving this slow tempo ballad a more powerful impact, in my opinion.
'Hang On' is another pop song with an Eighties feel, a fairly so-so offering which like the majority of music from the Eighties has that sterile manufactured sound which leaves me cold. That can't be said about 'It's Easy to Talk' which is another deeply personal ballad which always makes me feel rather uncomfortable listening to it. It's almost like eavesdropping on a very intimate, though one-sided conversation.
With 'The Maid of Culmore' Gerry Rafferty returns to his early Celtic musical roots. This is pure folk music, a traditional Irish folk song, given a modicum of orchestration and added harp. Gentle, sweet and poignant.
Piano and tambourine introduce 'For Your Heart's Desire' which is a more typical Gerry Rafferty song and of all the songs on the album comes closest to recreating the 'Baker Street' sound. It's a mid-tempo pop song taken from his 'Can I Have My Money Back' album. It makes for catchy and pleasant listening and brings together many of his musical influences; country, folk, pop and even some jazz with a great saxophone mid-section.
This effectively ends the album although there are two Christmas carols which follow, Adeste Fideles and Silent Night. The first is sung in Latin and given a slightly pop-like backing and tempo which brings shuddering shades of Cliff Richard to mind but his version of Silent Night, though pop-sounding again, is pleasant but somewhat unseasonal, barring a couple of weeks at the end of year.
There's no denying that Gerry Rafferty didn't have the best or the strongest recording voice that ever was and there always remained a busker-like quality to his singing which was charming and when linked to the deeply emotive words of his songs, also very effective. The song choices here reveal a man who frequently wore his heart on his sleeve as he sings of broken relationships, long ago childhood, and his faith and spirituality but these are experiences we've all had, reflecting the best and worst of the human condition, which it makes it easy to empathise with him and the musicality of all the songs makes it equally easy to listen to.
This album may not include his biggest hit and there are a couple of tracks which can be skipped, except at Christmas, but it goes a long way towards showcasing a man who was complex and sensitive and wasn't afraid to lay his feelings bare for all to listen to. It's currently available online for £5.99.
In view of the fact that this proved to be his final album, the title 'Life Goes On' is somewhat ironic but there's no doubting Gerry Rafferty had a real musical talent which will most definitely live on. This is the music of someone who possibly peaked too soon but it's a fitting epitaph for a man who, though he never quite reached the dizzy heights of fame that his talent deserved, checked out of life with his musical integrity in one piece.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Kyrie Eleison
2 The Waters of Forgetfulness
3 Don't Speak Of My Heart
5 Everytime I Wake Up
6 Love and Affecion
7 The Land of The Chosen Few
8 Life Goes On
9 Another World
10 Time's Caught Up On You
11 Conscious Love
12 Over My Head
13 Hang On
14 It's Easy To Talk
15 The Maid of Culmore
16 Your Heart's Desire
17 Adeste Fidelis
18 Silent Night