William Topley

Sea Fever

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After a three-year hiatus, U.K. songwriter William Topley eases back onto the scene with Sea Fever, a collection of 11 new tunes, one of which, "Sea Fever," incorporates its lyrics from a poem of the same name by John Masefield. Topley's greatest tool is his rich, soulful, gritty baritone, and he's in wonderful voice here. Using the same core of musicians who have been with him since the 1990s -- guitarist Luke Brighty, drummer Jim Kimberly, bassist James Eller, and keyboardist Mark Taylor -- Topley turns in an inspired, consistent performance that crosses genres of rock, folk, country-rock, and rootsy, soul-inflected pop. The tunes here all reflect the notion of rootlessness in America, whether it be as a result of broken love, alienation, restlessness, or malaise. In these songs, movement keeps emotions hovering about like ghosts, the broken, empty protagonists that inhabit them barely a step ahead of them, looking back cautiously or regretfully, looking forward without a defined sense of purpose. Check the shimmering high lonesome slippery rock of "Someone Else," where the singer travels an anonymous highway with thoughts of his beloved, now absent and being made love to by another, and all he can do is keep moving. On the title track acoustic guitars propel the singer toward the depths of his loneliness as it is born by the sea, turning him into a ragged vagabond. There's a unspeakable wildness in the cut as Mark Knopfler's electric guitar growls like the untamed elements as they swirl about the narrative. On "Michigan Life," Topley's character is a loner who takes in the street life from Detroit to Chicago on the road that connects them both, Michigan Avenue, seeing the broken emerge from the shadows and return there. The guitars wrangle with distorted chords and knife-edge riffs as piano, organ, and drums punch out a rhythm track that seemingly marks the miles. The weariness in his voice is buoyed by his unwillingness to settle for anything less than total disappearance into, and union with, the road itself. This is a fine rock album in the singer/songwriter vein with excellent melodies, poetic lyrics, crafty, empathetic musicianship, and a haunted sensibility throughout. If ever there were a case for the singer/songwriter genre in the 21st century as a viable creative force, Sea Fever, Topley's finest album yet, is it.

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