Michael McDermott “What in the World” (Pauper Sky Records, 2020)

With the release of ‘What in the World’ Michael McDermott continues the great run of musical form that has been a hallmark of his last three releases, and which started with what could be construed as his comeback album, the superb 2016 effort ‘Willow Springs’.  In truth though, after a spectacular breakthrough almost 3 decades ago that led to the almost inevitable “next big thing” labels, Michael McDermott has never gone away but like many before him, he hit the self-destruct button and in his own words,  “I’m sure you know the story….record deal early, some modicum of success, and then the long slow descent and destruction. Jail, rehab, fortunate enough to be alive, man.”

McDermott has now been clean and sober for six years and ‘What in the World’ exemplifies how perseverance combined with an undoubted songwriting ability is now truly paying dividends for the 51-year-old Chicagoan.  The album gets off to a full-on rocking start as the title track, with its nod to Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ dives headfirst into a stinging critique of the current state of society in the US and he pulls no punches with the anger in his voice almost visceral as he sings “Walls along the border, Kids in cages, Executive Orders, Welfare for Billionaires, People hungry everywhere”.  Indeed!

From that strongly political opening the album seamlessly transitions into ‘New York, Texas’ a beautiful love song that sees a couple clinging to the belief that, despite the life challenges they face, all will be well and in the end, God will protect them.  It’s a song, not about religion, but about hope, belief and especially faith – and it’s beautiful.  From there we move onto the wonderfully melodic ‘Blue Eyed Barmaid’ which is superbly constructed and a great example of McDermott’s adroit lyrical craftwork as he blends some of his own backstory into the lines “I was seeking shelter from the rain, so I ducked inside a tavern door. Can I offer you a drink sir? she said.  I said, I don’t drink anymore. She said, boy you must be thirsty.  I said, You’re damn right about that.”.  It’s a very clever piece of songwriting as the barmaid, in a role reversal, goes on to spill out her life to the customer.

‘What in the World’ sees McDermott team up with a trusted supporting musical cast with bassist Lex Price (who also mixed the album), Fred Eltringham on drumming duty, John Deaderick on keyboards, Will Kimbrough on guitar and of course his wife Heather Lynne Horton on fiddle and vocals and the whole thing blends together effortlessly with other standout tracks being  ‘Die With Me’ about standing strong in the face of adversity and the brooding ‘Positively Central Park’

After that initial success, followed by the numerous blows that would have seen lesser willed and lesser talented individuals give up, Michael McDermott is at his musical zenith.  There are eleven wonderful songs on this album (twelve if you count the acoustic demo of the title track that ends the album) and each draws you in and makes you listen deeply as the characters and their situations come to life.  ‘What in the World’ is 57 minutes of sheer musical delight and a masterpiece that should be in everyone’s music collection.

A not to be missed tour de force from an artist on top form
9/10

Author: Jim Finnie

Resident of the frozen NE of Scotland, with a penchant for climbing high mountains and exploring crazy countries that others avoid. I also sorta like music.

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