Ralph McTell's first album of new original songs in nine years (i.e., since 1986's Bridge of Sighs) finds the singer/songwriter over 50 and reflecting philosophically on the passage of time, the approach of death, and several social concerns. The overall tone of the collection is elegiac, the songs full of loss and regret. Typically, McTell tends to present his views in third-person character descriptions and story songs, although occasionally a first-person narrator turns up who is not obviously a character other than the singer, such as in the plaintive "I Don't Think About You," which, of course, is about how the narrator does think about a long-lost loved one every night and day. More representative, however, is the lead-off track, "Tous Les Animaux Sont Tristes" (All the Animals Are Sad), which depicts the nagging dissatisfaction of an ordinary man with a family and a successful business. "Fear of Flying" details that dissatisfaction, portraying life as a journey on a bus (not a surprising metaphor for an itinerant musician) with friends who get on and off. Among the most touching personal songs is the closing track, "An Irish Blessing," which the singer directs to his grown-up children. But McTell is typically just as interested in the political as the personal. "Care in the Community" is the song for anyone waiting for him to write another "Streets of London," as it provides character portraits of street people and admonishes the listener, "Everybody must bear his share." "The Islands" shows the devastating environmental impact of an oil spill; "The Enemy Within" laments the dire results of a coal miners' strike; and "Peppers and Tomatoes" and "The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf" (the latter a musical setting of a poem by Schmuel Huppert) treat ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust. And in "Jesus Wept," McTell reflects on the ways in which Christ's message has been misinterpreted over the centuries. Producer/arranger Martin Allcock, one of several members of Fairport Convention playing on the disc, provides varied musical settings for McTell's songs, from 1920s jazz to Celtic elements, without interfering with the basic man-with-acoustic-guitar sound that is the basis of McTell's music. The result is a full, expansive collection of songs that makes a worthy addition to the singer/songwriter's catalog.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann