Why Dan Michaelson is not a name that’s bandied about more often in musical circles is a mystery to me. Memory is the third episode of a trilogy which commenced with 2013’s Blindspot and continued with Distance the following year. Both those albums were sublime experiences with Michaelson’s deep baritone voice well to the fore, the music glacial in its progress, the songs wearied. Indeed, it wasn’t until I read the press release for Memory that I realised that Michaelson was responsible, along with Johnny Flynn, for the musical score to the superb BBC series The Detectorists. Flynn appears here (playing violin and flugelhorn) along with another of Michaelson’s old friends, Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers (on bass) and The Coastguards (Henry Spenner on drums, Laurie Earle, guitar and piano and Horse on guitar) are also swelled by double bass, cello, baritone and alto sax and trombone. Together they create a richer sound than on the previous albums (although that’s relative, this is still stripped back raw emotion), the horns creating at times a muted brass band sense of melancholy. The songs still creep along at a pace that makes Leonard Cohen seem like EDM but therein lies the beauty and wonder of Michaelson, his unhurried gravitas and funereal delivery allowing the album time to germinate in the listening.
The album opens with the quietly majestic Tides. A frustrated love song, the object of affection continually washed out of reach, tidal crashes of horns and percussion overwhelming the sonorous piano led verses, it’s like Brian Wilson on Quaaludes. It’s followed by the title song where Michaelson ponders on the vicissitudes of memory recalling moments that one would imagine would be the highlights of a relationship only to then mournfully state “memory, look what you’re doing to me, you left me undone and you show what I don’t want to see”. This sense of frustration permeates the album while the sensation of ever shifting sands creating a fragile grip on life, the singer subject to the whims of the tides continues on Missing Piece, the arrangements here recalling David Bedford’s work with Kevin Ayers.
Michaelson continues on his bruised Odyssey with the Cohen like Lost Piece, his voice here slowed to a crawl, the horns solemn on a song that commences with, “I was walking you home when the clouds above broke and the rain streaked your face like you’d been crying”. His attempt to convey his feelings are frustrated, “I felt the words of a thousand lost birds trip from my tongue before falling, each feather that lay in the mud and the rain was just seconds from meeting their calling” he sings/talks, desolate in the rain. Undo ups the tempo somewhat, the heart beat here suggesting resuscitation might be appropriate but again Michaelson is quietly raving against past decisions wishing to undo the past but powerless to do so. While comparisons abound to the likes of Cohen, Bill Callahan and Lee Hazlewood due to Michaelson’s vocal delivery on No Other Way we’d like to add Lou Reed to the roster as the song and the vocals here bring to mind the reflective Reed of Perfect Day. It’s a song to simply wallow in, sumptuous, the playing perfect.
“Epic minimalism” is a description someone came up with when referring to Michaelson. I’d just say that epic miserabilism might be more to the point but add that there’s a wonderfully realised beauty contained within.