When U.K. guitarist and songwriter Michael Chapman released 50, his Paradise of Bachelors debut in 2017, he'd long wanted to make an Americana album. He teamed with PoB stalwarts Steve Gunn, James Elkington, and Jimy Seitang, with longtime associate Bridget St. John lending her gorgeous plaintive vocals in support. Consisting of three new songs and completely revisioned selections from his catalog, it actually sounded (a lot) like he was fronting a rootsy indie rock band.
True North couldn't be more of a contrast. This is almost a full-circle return to his earliest years as a recording artist; musically it charts directly from 1969's Rainmaker and 1970's Fully Qualified Survivor. True North couldn't be more organic. Gunn returns as producer, plays lead guitar, and alternates with Chapman on bass and drums (the latter used sparingly at best). Chapman's glorious, innovative, mantra-like fingerstyle playing guides every song, and with the exception of two fine instrumentals -- "Eleuthera" and "Caddo Lake" -- his ravaged, grizzled vocals undergird that authority. Along with Gunn, St. John is present, as is pedal steel legend B.J. Cole and cellist Sarah Smout. These 11 songs are preoccupied with time, its all-too-fleeting passage, uncertainties, betrayals, and the regrets it imposes. Opener "It's Too Late" rumbles into being with a bass-string-accented 12-string played in a minor key. A brooding, slightly menacing spoken-sung lyric looks back at what might have been, but due to concealed choices, can no longer come to pass. Gunn's electric slide chimes in amid cello, atmospheric steel, and the constant, plodding monotone rasp in Chapman's vocal. "After All This Time" is among the most beautiful and wrenching ballads Chapman's ever written. Laced with subtle psychedelic production, strummed acoustic guitars are kissed by hovering keys, lithe cello, and wafting electric guitar, as the lyric expresses tenderness and affirmation with the acknowledgment of life's impermanence. In "Vanity Pride," Chapman's Zen look at history, mystery, regret, and wisdom, are charted in early Brit-folk trappings. "Truck Song" shines as the whole band frames Chapman's searing, poetic lyric with lush accents tempered by rounded edges. The singer's voice becomes its own bassline as he juxtaposes physical apparitions with emotional ghosts. Smout's cello borrows inspiration from Nick Drake's "Hazy Jane I," in the margin, while Gunn and Cole paint the middle in subtle shades of blue. There are modal folk-blues to inform "Hell to Pay," while the set comes full-circle on "Youth Is Wasted on the Young," a drifting paean to mistakes and what's been tragically left undone at the end, as whining reverbed pedal steel, sonant cello, and Chapman's simple strum accent his poignant words. Truth be told, True North is even stronger than the excellent 50. Here Chapman obviously revels in his continued ability to mine the emotional, psychological, and spiritual terrain he did in his younger years as a songwriter, while adding experiential depth to his approach through a lifetime of profound musical development. In an enormous catalog, True North stands straight-up alongside his finest recordings.