Dan Penn is a legend. There, said it. Songwriter, producer, musician and performer and one of the mainstays of the fabled Muscle Shoals team. Penn wrote numerous songs which were chart hits for the likes of Aretha Franklin back in the sixties and was one of the guiding hands behind Alex Chilton’s first band, The Box Tops. Chances are you have at least one of his classic songs in your collection with the odds on that it’s someone’s version of Dark End Of The Street.
For someone who has been reckoned as a personification of “blue eyed soul,” Penn has, in the main, shied from the spotlight with only a handful of solo recordings behind him. There have been brief flurries of activity on the live front, often in tandem with his song writing partner Spooner Oldham, which have allowed him to demonstrate his self-effacing brilliance (check out the 2006 recording, Moments From This Theatre, for proof) but in general he avoids the limelight. It was a surprise then to hear that, now 79 years old, Penn was releasing his first new album in 26 years. It’s no surprise however that Living On Mercy is quite wonderful as Penn captures once again, the soulful sound he helped create five decades ago.
Recorded in Memphis and Nashville with a crack team (Milton Sledge (drums), Michael Rhodes (bass), Will McFarlane (guitar) and Clayton Ivey (keyboards), along with a full horn section and female harmonies), it’s evident from the opening bars of the title song that Penn can still write songs which pierce to the heart and deliver them with the wearied resignation of a wounded lover. Living On Mercy is classic Penn in the vein of Dark End Of The Street and the band just nail the sound. The album resounds with such echoes as if time has stood still and The Swampers were still around (indeed, keyboard player Ivey was a Swamper) as they romp through Clean Slate, I Didn’t Hear That Comin’, the funky horn driven Edge Of love and the excellent Leave It Like You Found It, another masterful tearjerker.
There are nods to soulful balladeers such as Jerry Butler on I Do and Things Happen but Penn is at his best when he’s singing about heartbreak and one of the highlights of the album is the emotional tug of Blue Motel. A narrative song, it wallows in despair with Penn’s voice comforted by the harmony singers while the band are the embodiment of loneliness with their delicate touch. It’s similar to the sorry tales parlayed by The Delines on their Imperial album but just that bit more soulful. The standout song is Penn’s paean to Nashville’s music row and the many dreams lost and shattered of so many wannabees who got off the bus reckoning they would soon be a star. It crowns an album that is just gorgeous. Penn wears his years well, his voice still in fine fettle, and the arrangements are quite wonderful.
There’s been a bit of a resurgence in country southern soul over the past year or two so why not do yourself a favour and buy this rare album from one of its founding members. Living On Mercy is released on CD on 28th August but there’s a later vinyl release in October for those who really want to relive the good old days.