In the songwriters’ all-night café Tom Waites sits in a corner wreathed in smoke, surrounded by fellow players, back slapping and cackling to his chords. In another corner, distant but listening is Leonard Cohen, nursing a wine glass and contemplating puzzles he can resolve in lyrics. Stephen Burch, aka The Great Park, belongs in this corner.
The Great Park’s album Now Wash Your Hands mimics Cohen’s melancholy with with a decidedly English tinge. Countrysides unfurl amongst heart-wrung fireside conversations with a force of words that suggests Burch lives a common life, but one that is deeply felt. A minstrel and a storyteller, his songs ripple and lilt along with a beautiful variety of folk cadences, here and there touched up by strings and trumpet.
The themes are loss and anguish but it is not an album of navel-gazing. The quality of his lyrics – a distillation of beautiful thoughts – have enough sincerity to push the at-times-unbearable sentimality to a deeper solace.
This is a writer’s music. Cohen indeed peeks through, most notably on Jake, an atmosphere of songtelling that illuminates scenes of questions half-answered. Stephen in person is a bright, good-humoured man, so whatever anguish he experiences through music, it undoubtedly provides a cure.
It will be interesting to see where The Great Park heads next, if the music he produces becomes more synthesised or heavily accompanied. Wherever he goes, the atmosphere and feeling of this record is a delight for melancholy afternoons that afterwards feel somehow more bright.
Now Wash Your Hands is available on handmade CD and download from Woodland Recordings. The Great Park is touring mainland Europe until February 2012, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam next week. See The Great Park website for dates.