A promising debut from home-grown multi-instrumentalist Sawyer, with southern Gothic flavours.
‘Ballads of the Mortal’ is the debut solo release on CD from Neal Sawyer, hailing from Staffordshire. Previously the founder and songwriter in quartet Guile, the set was previously released in digital format in 2019. Inspired by a road trip to the USA, the eleven songs feature a variety of influences from blues through roots and Americana, together with a garage band edge with roots in his aforementioned band. A multi-instrumentalist, Sawyer contributes acoustic, electric and slide guitars, keys and synth, percussion, harmonica and as well as contemporary production styles including pads and ‘found sounds’, to create soundscapes which often shade into Southern Gothic.
Produced with a cinematic feel–perhaps the Cohen Brothers in their darker moments–the final mix of the album was engineered by producer Gareth Rogers (Robert Plant, Scott Matthews, Editors).
Lyrically a thread running through the album is faith, with more focus on its challenges than its joys. Opening track ‘Thank the Lord for the Music’ features prominent slide guitar over a driving rhythm, with the refrain “there will be no rifles in my Kingdom come/ thank the Lord for the music/ and the Devil for your guns”. ‘Misty Clouds of Midnight’ continues the rocking feel, with banjo and harmonica added to the mix.
‘No Silence’ has flavours of psychedelia, a la Country Joe and the Fish circa 1969, with an unsettling modal feel, augmented with harmonica, as Sawyer sings “we need some faith/I’m just a stranger/ a stranger in the land/a pilgrim in a loveless land just trying to understand”.
‘Tending to Tears’ has hints of the West Coast USA sound of the late 60s/early 70s, while ‘Revival Blues’ has Sawyers’ take on the ‘deal with the Devil at the crossroads’ theme, as he’s “waiting at the crossroads for a saviour to come…praying for resurrection with my knees on the floor”, against a slow blues-inspired track, with insistent keys adding to the sense of foreboding.
Setting a contrasting tone is ‘Love Don’t hold Me Back’, which builds from an arpeggiated acoustic guitar introduction to a powerful instrumental outro.
The darker side of faith features on ‘Keep on Killing’, as Sawyer sings “I’d shoot down the preachers son/I’d shoot down anyone/’cos they did nothing for me” with mandolin, steel guitar and twang guitar evoking a scene from the wild west, with keys adding echoes of Shivaree.
A promising debut from home-grown talent.