After a break of ten years Michael Weston King has made his fifth solo studio album. Not that he’s an artist who lets the grass grow under his feet having produced many fine albums and toured relentlessly with his wife, Lou Dalgleish, in My Darling Clementine. Though Dalgleish is one of several very accomplished musicians on the album The Struggle is a distinct move away from MDC’s country core. While no let up in his perceptive writing that tells stories from many angles, Weston King has dug into his many long-term influences to create a gem of a record that stands tall in the singer/songwriter canon.
Despite its name The Struggle is not specifically a ‘pandemic’ album. Of course, there are elements of lockdown that emerge but as he has done many times previously Weston King lengthens his focus to the struggles of life generally. Reflective, sparse and deeply atmospheric, Weston King takes his time to muse about many of life’s stresses and strains. His more roots and folk vibe creates the ideal backdrop for songs that variously evoke Mickey Newbury, Jesse Winchester, Guy Clark, John Prine and Townes Van Zandt. For the record The Struggle is the name of a climb in the Lake District whose precise measurements and difficulty Weston King meticulously records in the liner notes. If words mean more, he obliges with the dictionary definition of ‘struggle’, “to make strenuous or violent efforts in the face of difficulties or opposition”.
Armed with such elucidation the album opens with a particularly vivid example of such conflict. ‘Weight Of The World’ is the profound regret felt by an American policeman for the result of his, and the vote of many others, for Trump. “And I clearly understand it’s not right/ To hold a man down, while he begs for his life/ It’s not the weight of the world on our/ Shoulders it’s the weight of a man”. Weston King’s voice reverberates with contrition around gentle chords that combined asks what have I done?
That earthier sound comes out on ‘Sugar’ written with Peter Case, where Weston King contemplates the very short journey from the first taste to complete dependence on whatever sweetness it may be, “Just one hit, and I can’t stop”. The way he lingers over “sugar” and the comforting electric guitar and mandolin add a very 70s folk taste.
‘The Hardest Thing Of All’ tackles the struggle faced by so many, depression. Just the monumental effort to get out of bed in the morning is something Weston King treats with great empathy and hopes better times might come. He can accept things are not right but that’s no disgrace. The soaring organ signifies both the burden of the condition and the hope that comes with facing up to it. ‘Another Dying Day’ is similarly sparse yet frank in dealing with death and its fall-out. He keeps going, determined not to let the loss turn him into, “one of those men/ Who’s awake at six and in their cups by ten/ Trying to kill the day”.
‘Me & Frank’ is so reminiscent of John Prine, not just in Weston King’s plaintive vocals but in the tragic story that unfolds about a long lost childhood friend who had turned to crime. Slow and deliberate, Weston King laments the loss of such a cherished friendship without apportioning blame that is underlined by his tender acoustic guitar picking and a lovely cello.
The album’s other co-write is with Weston King’s recently departed and much missed friend, Jackie Leven. Poetic in its imagery ‘Theory Of Truthmakers’ is a slow muse with harmonies from Lou Dalgleish taking Weston King is far from country and far into singer-songwriter land. Long standing collaborator and one of Elvis Costello’s Attractions Steve Nieve deepens those thoughts with his sensitive piano line.
Weston King was joined throughout by several other excellent musicians. Special mention must go to vocalist Jeb Loy Nichols, Barnaby Dickinson who’s trombone adds a further layer of pathos to ‘The Old Soft Shoe’, daughter Mabel Dalgleish-King for her recorder on ‘The Final Reel’ and to Clovis Phillips who recorded the songs in his studio away in the Welsh countryside. That remoteness finds its way into the sound he created with Weston King.
The album closes with a reprise of ‘Weight Of The World’ remixed by ‘Ghostwriter’ aka Mark Brend, who performed the same service with the protest song, ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’ on Weston King’s previous solo album of the same name. That the message merits repetition is enough but hearing this version complete with background broadcast commentator also reminds the listener of Weston King’s mastery of the protest song.
In this deeper country soul mode, perfect for pondering life’s hardships, Weston King gives each song space to contemplate that bestows The Struggle a lasting profundity. We must hope he has more in this direction and it isn’t another decade for another solo record.