Most folk reading this will be familiar with Michael Weston King as one half of the excellent My Darling Clementine, the on stage bickering husband and wife team who have released a series of excellent albums which explore and update the dynamics (and the wonder) of country duets. Most recently, they added their chemistry to a selection of Elvis Costello’s “country darkness” songs on an acclaimed trilogy of EPs which also featured Steve Nieve, Costello’s long-standing keyboard foil. Now, taking time out from My Darling Clementine duties, Weston KIng has released his first solo album in a decade, The Struggle.
Recorded in a remote Welsh studio, The Struggle features Weston King accompanied by Clovis Phillips, a multi instrumentalist (and the studio’s owner) with additional parts added by a fine ensemble of musicians remotely. A world away from the Tammy & George like marital world of My Darling Clementine, Weston King here has looked back to that classic late 60s, early 70s singer songwriter period, seeking inspiration from the likes of Jesse Winchester, Dan Penn, John Prine and even Van Morrison in his high kicking Caledonia soul days.
It’s a wonderfully accomplished album, suffused with elements of growing older, of remembering past times and, on occasion, bitingly contemporary. The title, Weston King says, is not a reference to the hardships of Covid but to the more elemental and ongoing concerns which we all face in our day-to-day existence and which will remain long after Covid is but a sniffle. It’s also a reference to a stout hill climb in Cumbria which has stuck in his mind for some time.
The album opens with the most contemporary song, Weight Of The World. It was written after Weston King watched, appalled, Donald Trump marching to St. John’s Church in Washington to brandish a bible, having had his troops brutally remove Black Life Matters protestors who were in his way. Weston sings it as a policeman who, having voted for Trump, sees the reality of this most heinous of characters finally unveiled. It’s a grand protest song which doesn’t point fingers but tries to understand why some folk can be fooled and fooled again and there’s a remixed version at the end of the album which really roots around in a Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham fashion. It’s followed by Sugar, a song co-written with Peter Case and the most “Americana” like song on the disc with its mandolin trills and sly slide guitar.
The heft of the album is in a brace of songs, some personal, some less so, which have a vein of nostalgia and loss running through them. The Hardest Thing Of All is a fine soulful account of solitude while Another Dying Day drips with weariness and, yes, struggle. The nostalgia is lit large in the wonderful waltz time The Old Soft Shoe which is a very affectionate and quite moving snapshot of the surviving partner of a dancing couple retracing their dance steps, “I live here alone and nobody knows, that I dance each evening, all on my own.” A mournful trombone and Barney Kessel like guitar licks set the scene and Weston King sings it quite beautifully. Valerie’s Coming Home is Weston King’s memoriam to Lou Dalgleish’s mother who passed away shortly before these viral times and he paints a fine portrait of her with a wonderful sense of delicacy. Finally, Me & Frank tells of a childhood friend who, it seems, was a bit of a lark, with Weston KIng transposing red dirt country tales to the badlands of a seemingly endless Southport beach.
The Final Reel finds Weston King paying tribute to his late friend, Jackie Leven. It’s appropriately windswept and full of Celtic romance with a roaring chorus. A fine send off but Leven appears again on Theory Of Truthmakers, a song written by Leven but never recorded. Given the lyrics by a mutual friend, Weston King dresses them in a glorious arrangement, assisted by Mike Cosgrove (a long time associate of Leven’s) on strings and with Lou Dalgleish (and daughter Mabel) on vocals. There’s a sense of the quiet majesty of Jimmy Webb here, the soft ebb and flow of the strings, the nylon guitar, the sweep of the chorus. It’s quite magnificent and it’s the topping on what is a mature, thoughtful and very engaging album.