Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Peter Mulvey appears to be a musician who has definitely paid his dues. A spell in Dublin busking back in 1989 was followed by a decade or so in Boston and the release of several albums. His busking continued with his 2002 album Ten Thousand Mornings being recorded live on a Boston subway platform and for the past few years he has travelled by bicycle on his annual Fall tour entertaining along the way.
Over the course of around 17 albums Mulvey has proved to be a wry commentator on the human condition and an adept collaborator with other musicians including Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst. A fine singer and excellent acoustic guitarist his 2006 release, The Knuckleball Suite, remains a favourite here at Blabber’n’Smoke.
Silver Ladder is somewhat of a departure for Mulvey. Following “a turbulent stretch in his personal life” Mulvey sought solace in his writing. By the time he had enough for an album he contacted an acquaintance, none other than chuck Prophet whom Mulvey had met once before and Prophet agreed to produce the album. The result is a tougher sound than one has come to expect from Mulvey with Prophet and fellow Mission Express member James DePrato playing guitar, David Kemper (from Dylan’s tour band) on drums, Tom Fruend, upright bass and Aiden Hawken on keyboards (including Celeste, Chamberlin and Mellotron). Sara Watkins of Silver Nickel added some harmony vocals and played violin. While it’s not a rock album the well drilled crew deliver some punchy moments from the start with Lies You Forgot You Told stepping sprightly over a taut rhythm section as the guitars and keyboards decorate the melody. You Don’t have To Tell Me is propelled by driving acoustic guitar with a slight rockabilly jaunt reminiscent of Nick Lowe when he had a spring in his step, Prophet weighs in on backing vocals and there are some tasty guitar breaks. Sympathies continues in a similar vein with accordion added to the mix along with a memorable hook and melody that places the song close to the brash vitality of Prophet on Temple Beautiful. While these opening songs are brisk and confident lyrically there’s a thread of loss and betrayal running through them and the next number, the country stained lament Remember The Milkman (a duet with Watkins) is a break up song through and through and one wonders if Mulvey’s turbulence was due to the end of a relationship. What Else Was It reinforces the sense of loss. A denser, multi layered song which owes something to Mulvey’s Irish connections as his voice approaches a brogue, it’s dark and brooding and in the end reproachful. Trempealeau follows with its simple acoustic guitar and keyboard backing allowing Mulvey to appear wounded and vulnerable however he turns in his best performance here on what is a beautiful song. Sara Watkins returns to duet on the restrained ballad Where Did You Go with the pair singing wonderfully together as they apologise for their lost love. Tasteful guitar breaks with an understated hint of Bakersfield twang adorn the song which would not appear out of place on the recent my Darling Clementine’s The Reconciliation? album.
Up till now the album is a winner but over the course of the final five songs it seems to lose its footing somewhat with a mixture of styles vying for attention. Josephine harks back to Mulvey’s previous quirky delivery and style although Back In The Wind rewinds to the beginning of the album and the Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello model of brisk power pop. Copenhagen Airport is an oddity. Acoustic guitar scrubbings and soaring electrics over a throbbing bass line dominate until, close to the end Mulvey ponders the beauty of the women in the titular airport complaining that none of them are on his flight. Someone needs to ask him about this one. If You Shoot At A King You Must Kill Him is a surrealistic delve into Mulvey’s dreamworld with his vocals rushed as he delivers a song poem with atmospheric sound effects. It’s like a psychodrama and perhaps cathartic for the singer as he strives to finally cast off his emotional shackles. It’s telling that he’s borrowed the title from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the sense that the album will close the door on the episode and allow him to move on without retribution. Speculation of course but otherwise the song remains unexplained.
Despite the quibbles over the final third of the album overall Mulvey is triumphant with Prophet’s production taking him in a new direction. Some lucky folk will get the chance to see him in action as he is touring the UK in March and April although there are no Scottish dates penned, a pity as I’d love to see him performing Marty and Lou where it’s all about the monkeys.
Peter Mulvey’s Kickstarter introduction to the album