Darkness can lead to an uplifting experience in the hands of a master songwriter.
Jerry Leger has long been considered one of the best Canadian songwriters, and he has worked with many of his fellow countrymen, most notably the Cowboy Junkies. It might surprise some that his latest record, ‘Donlands’, is also his 14th. That isn’t the only surprise though, because while Jerry Leger’s songs remain on the confessional side of things, he has indulged his musical fantasies with the help of producer, engineer and Daniel Lanois cohort, Mark Howard, who has worked on records by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams and countless others. The sound that Jerry Leger wanted is a modern take on the reverb-drenched records of the ‘50s and ‘60s while still retaining simple arrangements. The result is a sound that invokes the film noir music of the ‘40s and ‘50s, which brings even deeper darkness to Leger’s songs without obscuring the carefully crafted lyrics. For those of you who may be curious about the title, it is simply the name of the Toronto street that ‘Donlands’ was recorded in.
The opening track ‘Sort Me Out’ has Leger reflecting on his relationship with his therapist over a simple back that features electric piano and is inspired by the late great Johnny Ace. Jerry Leger switches to piano for ‘I Was Right To Doubt Her’ which examines addiction and channels Tom Waits and maybe a bit of Willie Nelson’s Teatro. The benefits of perseverance are at the heart of ‘I’ll Stay’ with Leger on electric guitar and accompanied by prominent organ. ‘Three Hours Ahead Of Midnight’ is possibly Jerry Leger’s favourite song on ‘Donlands’ as we move to country soul territory. Pedal steel helps emphasise the country in ‘The Flower And The Dirt’ which invokes the spirit of Hank Williams. Sadness imbues the piano ballad ‘Wounded Wing’ but it is an uplifting sadness. The electricity is turned up on ‘You Carry Me’ which is Leger rocking out with a fuzz soundscape. The electricity is turned off for ‘I Need Love’ which is a classic pop ballad. Moog synth mixes with pedal steel on ‘Out There Like The Rain’ and evidently producer Mark Howard suggested the words be spaced out to help emphasise them. We could be in film noir territory on ‘Slow Night In Nowhere Town’ with its imagery of neon lights and empty streets.
While Jerry Leger’s songwriting skills have never waivered, his decision to work with Mark Howard has added another dimension to his music which should not only please his fans, but also bring in potential new ones. Being successful as a confessional songwriter is a hard trick to pull off when the reason people listen to music is to ultimately be brought out of themselves and be uplifted. The lyrics and soundscapes on ‘Donlands’ are certainly dark, and this may be as dark as Jerry Leger has ever been, but the whole album also manages to be an uplifting experience for the listener, and a lot of that is due to Leger’s vocals. He may have been influenced musically by Tom Waits, but his vocals show the shadow cast by Johnny Ace.