When the initial promise of overnight success as yet another new Dylan failed to materialize, Michael McDermott's life went off the rails big time. He recalls grimly that "It was a fast shot to the top and then a long way down”.
For his 11th studio recording, McDermott charts his return from the brink. It's his 'I'm still standing' record in which he recounts "a life, rife with drugs, drink, jail, tragedy and majestic failure" from bitter first-hand experience.
It helped that he had the luxury of being able to produce and record the album at his home studio in Willow Springs, Illinois. It's a true solo work since, in addition to the vocals, he plays guitar, bass and keyboards. Guest players, including his wife on backing vocals and fiddle, were called upon only to plug any gaps that remained.
McDermott says "I use everything I’ve been through, and that makes me stronger – and I think it makes my music more meaningful” . The gritty realism of many of the songs support this point of view.
Given that autobiographical truth-telling is so important, we have to take his word for the fact that the vivid description of the killings committed in the bold opening song are fictional. Cal-Sag Road is a first person account of a "day from hell" told with the kind of noirish relish that put me in mind of Jim Whites' 'Wrong-eyed Jesus'. After meeting two women in a bar, a drunken orgy in a hotel leads to a fight and double murder. The inclusion of details like "I punctured the lungs so the bodies wouldn't float" make this nightmarish tale all the more chilling and a little too real for comfort.
The determination not to return to his old life is affirmed in the mission statement of Never Goin' Down Again while in Knocked Down McDermott warns that you either choose life or let it choose you.
Frequently, he faces up to his demons with macho bravado. With his testosterone fueled boast that "once we were like warriors" in the title track, he embodies the brash heroism of a streetwise Springsteen while in Sad Songs he turns pain and doubt into a Tom Petty-esque driving song.
Paradoxically, however, the boldest tracks are those that reveal a more vulnerable and self reflective side to the singer's character. The World Will Break Your Heart is an elegiac ballad recounting cautionary tales of ordinary sadness told with admirable restraint and we find him questioning his faith in the closing track, God Help Us.
Perhaps inevitably, not all attempts to turn harsh truths into great songs work. Celtic Sea is a less than convincing attempt to get in touch with his Irish roots while the jump and jive rockabilly of Rubberband Ring seems totally out of place.
At the risk of seeming like an atrocity tourist, it's the confessional material that gives this album its real strength. Quite simply, self destructive tales pack a greater punch than those of someone going straight.
As he cautions in Sideways, depression wears many masks but, by his own account, McDermott is now a reformed character approaching each day as a gift and enjoying life as a contented husband and father.
After four years sober, he appears to have won a hard-fought battle with addiction and now faces the challenge of being able to write songs from the other side of the gutter. This album feels like a definitive statement that will be a hard act to follow.
For the moment, however, he is fully justified in feeling proud of his achievement with this collection. “I could say that this is the record I always wanted to make", he says. "but the real truth is, this is the album I was always supposed to make”.
Michael McDermott's website