With a strikingly bleak black-and-white illustration done by Mick Stevens himself on the cover, featuring an animal skeleton and goblet in a moonlit nighttime forest, one could be forgiven for thinking The River would be a solitary dark night of the soul much like Nick Drake's Pink Moon. But while "No Survivors Now" is a vivid portrayal of emotional betrayal and destroyed ideals, it's a full band performance, with Stevens balancing his gentle voice with some fierce guitar playing, the band providing almost a bit of a Thin Lizzy strut. From there The River makes its often unsettled way, a low-key representative of a kind of '70s English rock & roll already being relegated to a lower level of attention due to punk's explosion. Throughout, Stevens clearly shows he was enjoying all kinds of music, writing songs that feature everything from smooth Steely Dan-style rhythms to understated exercises in time signature shifting, a striking job considering the rushed, limited-budget nature of the recording. Credit goes to the performers, notably bassist Warne Livesey (who also chips in on congas throughout) and drummer Colin Woolway, who literally had to record all his parts in one session. There's also the fragile folk familiar from his earlier efforts, with "The Girl Came to Our Town" starting in a solo acoustic/vocal style before easing into a gentle full band jam. Stevens' light but spot-on singing (all done without the benefit of retakes) is as strong as ever -- there's a warmth to it that's solely his, for all the obvious forebears he draws on -- while the album's lengthy centerpiece, "Suite (To a Seagull)," shows that he's able to make a prog rock-length song that has an easygoing groove at its heart, right down to some winning guest saxophone.
What proved to be Stevens' final album is in ways a bit of a summation of his career as a whole, covering everything from the original West Coast rock and folk inspirations of his younger years (notably on the gently haunting title track) to the creative complexities that bands like Steely Dan and Thin Lizzy brought to the fore. Opening song "Out and Running" has just enough of that "lone rebel against the system" feeling that seemed to be everywhere in 1979 rock & roll -- if it's not as anthemic as Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell," it's probably easier to deal with in the end, while his swift acoustic guitar playing at the end is a great, unexpected final touch. Bookending the album is "The Other Side of the River," a passionate, sax-tinged love song written for Stevens' soon to be wife Hilary Burn, who helps sing backing vocals. Stevens steps back two albums to rework No Savage Word's "Little Miss Freedom" -- starting off as gentle folk before a full rhythm section kicks in, Warne Livesey re-creating his bass part from the original recording -- while the only cover is of an old folk song he had often played before, "The Ballad of Laszló Fehér," featuring a sprightly violin part scored by Stevens himself. Though there are a few jarring moments throughout -- the synth parts to "Drunk by Myself" reduce a sharp little song's impact to twee weirdness in one blow -- The Englishman is a fine if unplanned conclusion to Stevens' career. On the 2005 release of the album, four bonus tracks take a bow -- three are home demos from 1978, including a version of "The Englishman" that's less sedate than the album take, but is just as powerfully strange. The final is a radio interview from later that year, with Stevens talking about the making of The River and his songwriting history and approach.