Malcolm McWatt’s ‘Settler’ tells us what to think about, just not a lot about him.
There is a lot to like about Malcolm McWatt’s new album, ‘Settler’. The music is a delight. It is obvious that McWatt is deeply immersed in traditional sounds. He plays well; he has all the chops and the arrangements echo the best of the folk genre. The problem is the lyrics.
Garcia and Hunter, John and Turpin and even Gilbert and Sullivan; there is a lot to be said about matching a great lyricist with a gifted musician. ‘Settler’ is an example of the risks of going it alone. Now, there is collaboration galore on
this album. A veritable who’s who of current folk and traditional musicians appear on this effort: Gretchen Peters, Eliza Carthy, Laura Cantrell, Jamie Harris and Kris Driver all join in. But the lyrics don’t match the music.
McWatt is not a bad storyteller, just not a great lyricist. He is obviously immersed in traditional sounds and images. But they not his stories, it is just not his experience. He tries to tell other people’s stories; a long-dead Forty-niner (‘Letter from San Francisco’), a 19th Century Scottish explorer (‘John Rae’s Welcome Home’). These are borrowed memories, appropriated trauma. There is the occasional good, maybe even great line or refrain, but that is often followed by a real clinker, one that just didn’t catch fire. He mixes traditional and modern phrases and imagery in ways that are at times jarring or just silly. ‘Banjo Lullaby’ has to be one of the few songs, along with ‘Dueling Banjos’, that associates cruelty with the banjo, and then throws in the Robert Johnson Crossroads myth.
He ends the album with ‘About the Songs’, a vocal explanation. One of the first real tests of the quality of a work of art is if it can stand alone. If a painting needs the artist to stand next to it to explain it, it won’t outlive the artist. It’s the same with a song: if the song needs to be explained by the writer, you kinda wonder how long will it be around.
Listening to these songs tells you a lot of what McWatt wants us think about but not a lot about him; you know who he wants to give voice to but not much about his lived experience. It might have been good to include an instrumental.