As the press release reminds us, Blabber’n’Smoke once described MG Boulter as the poet laureate of the Thames estuary, a land of faded glory and tattered seaside resorts. Boulter has sung about this Essex coastline, its history and characters over his career, be it within the muscular strokes of his band, The Lucky Strikes, or on his mellower and pastoral solo recordings. Clifftown finds him focussing on a mythical resort, almost certainly based on his home town of Southend On Sea, but which could stand for just about any faded seaside town in this blighted nation. Promenades trading on past glories, dependent on tourists and good weather and deserted in winter months, a Martin Parr photo essay in song.
Although Boulter is singing about decline, the album is a joyous delight. His airy voice has never sounded better and he has assembled a top-flight notch of musicians who give wing to the songs. Together they weave a glorious concoction of sounds ranging from whimsical folk sounds and bed sit ruminations to elaborately arranged anthems and even one chunk of rock’n’roll. Throughout the album, Boulter breathes life into his cast of characters while Clifftown glowers balefully behind them. Midway through the disc, a song, The Slow Decline, is perhaps the exemplar here as Boulter remembers a woman who dreamed of being a star only to end up singing in a seaside show. Her failed dream is then followed by his mention of “corner bums sleeping under the archways tonight” accompanied by a sardonic lyrical steal from The Loving Spoonful’s Summer In The City.
Opening with the winsome Midnight Movies, Boulter immediately offers a sense of nostalgia as he summons up a tale of late adolescence seeking excitement in rain swept neon lit streets despite the inherent dangers. Soft White Belly then clamours in with some raucous guitar charging away as Boulter initially observes an old lady feeding arcade slot machines , comparing her limited horizons to his adventures abroad before the song culminates in a glimpse of more ancient grandeurs. Here, memories, Boutler suggests, are as malleable as history and subject to the whims of whoever wrote that history. More down to earth, the title song is almost like a “fly on the wall” documentary as Boulter observes the exodus of youths from their dreary Clifftown lifes (the Co-Op is the only shop open on a Sunday), enticed by the nearby gateway to the world, London town. There are those who choose to remain however and Fan Of The Band is delivered from the perspective of one who wasn’t enticed by the bright lights but who remembers the heyday of Canvey Island rock’n’roll – a salute to a survivor and his memories which he is happy to share over a pint or two.
Hugely enjoyable is The Author Of All Things, She Speaks, with its audacious and wonderfully performed arrangement. Flighty guitars and bustling percussion drive this glorious song which finds Boulter in a transcendental bind. Meanwhile, Nights At The Aquarium finds Boulter in territory not dissimilar to that of Blue Rose Code, a band he has played with in the past as, with a fine sense of wearied acceptance, Boulter sums up the hum drum routine of life in Clifftown, enlivened only by aqua blue dreams. It’s quite hypnotic in its limpid delivery and there’s more of that in the closing song, Pilate. Recorded back in 2016 for the fledging Hudson Records, it closes the album on a high note with its fluttering strings, gentle waves of percussion and occasional guitar murmurings.
If you have a chance, listen to MG Boulter talking about the album and some of the history of Southend On Sea with his label mate, Jenny Sturgeon via this podcast while he offers his very own guide to Clifftown here.