That blend of the light and shade is what makes Mark Eitzel at his best so cherishable. And new album Hey Mr Ferryman is Eitzel at his best.
It’s always good to have Mark Eitzel back. There will always be some who hanker after the particular dimensions and textures that American Music Club brought to his songs. But his solo work has given him a chance to explore different sounds and collaborate around and about a pretty consistent songwriting style.
Given that probably my favourite album of last year was Kate Jackson’s, it was especially intriguing to see Eitzel teaming up with Bernard Butler this time out. The result is possibly his biggest and warmest-sounding album since teaming up with Peter Buck on West 20 years ago. But where West was a bit too slick in places, the balance here is great and underlines a terrific collection of songs. There’s a melancholy air. Of course there is, no-one sings melancholy like Mark Eitzel. (I remember when the National first came to prominence, there were a lot of comparisons between Matt Berninger and Eitzel. Now I like the National as much as the next man, but there’s no contest on that front…) But as ever the damaged but hopeful vignettes and portraits that Eitzel paints are shot through with a clever, if bleak, sense of humour. His El Cortez is a bar where “if you die on the floor the drinks are free”. There are, too, echoes of previous songs – In My Role As A Professional Singer and Ham has him moving on from the role of “the most hated singer in the local underground music scene” from an old AMC b-side, progress of sorts. And where in the past he has drawn inspiration from the real and fiictional, from Johnny Mathis to Cleopatra Jones, here he turns to Mr Humphries. Yes, *that* Mr Humphries -keeping on trying to keep hope alive, though also observing that “you won’t find the sun if the dead light your way” – a timely caution before we get caught up in another slew of notable deaths.
That blend of the light and shade is what makes Eitzel at his best so cherishable. And Hey Mr Ferryman is Eitzel at his best.