For those already combing through the tributaries of seminal UK folk – running into the likes of Jansch, Harper and John Martyn – Michael Chapman is already dug in as a hero. For those less inclined to dig the history of British strings, perhaps he needs yet another introduction. Like Harper he’s more a product of mythical inspiration than a staple of the stereo shelf, but as he eases into his status as an elder statesman of the form, he should be carving out that space in your stacks more than ever. For every kid that learned about Roy Harper from the back cover of a Led Zep album, there’s an ever more introverted version of that kid tracking Chapman through connections to Mick Ronson or Thurston Moore. As of late the connection has spun out to seasoned and now indie anointed slinger Steve Gunn. Gunn produced Chapman’s last album 50 and likewise pulled in a slew of his own collaborators to give the songwriter a fitting accompaniment – everyone from Nathan Bowles to James Elkington and Jimmy SeiTang. Chapman’s longtime friend, Bridget St. John lent her voice to the record as well, knitting the folk family ever tighter.
That album was a rebirth for Chapman, a resetting of the map that had long gone askew. Chapman had by no means been quiet in the interim, but it gave a new notoriety to an artist that should have been ranking heavy on the radar of those who have been haunted by Gunn, Scott Hirsch, Wooden Wand, or Elkington’s solo works. For True North, Gunn returns to guide the gears, but leaves behind the ringers, though the accomplished slide work of BJ Cole finds its way in to the mix and St. John returns to add her signature touch. The album stands as an even stronger testament to Chapman’s enduring light. Largely just the songwriter and his guitar, the album is hung heavy with the wisdom of age – cut deep with the scars of decades, cascading like rings through wood and lacquered thick with the bar rag whiff of backrooms, green rooms, and broken mirror bathrooms that dot the stages of what passes as fitting for a folk career now and forever.
Chapman has a pathos, a humor, and a heft that doesn’t come cheap. There’s only one way to get the grey-eyed gut punch of truth into one’s music, and its not by avoiding the hard moments. Chapman is a conduit for pain and perseverance, standing on the edge of what society increasingly sees as mortality’s precipice, but while some of that baggage has hung about the artists shoulders there’s hardly a sense that he finds it a burden. True North is an album about not easing gently into anything, let along the night. Chapman, at just shy of 80 is still a beacon – grizzled, sure, but gleaming nonetheless. Whether this is your first step into Chapman’s view or pushing double digits, the record cuts deep, but sticks around to clean the wounds.
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