Graham Reid | | 1 min read
Portland remains the home of an acoustic, often downbeat singer-songwriter tradition some 15 years after the death of Elliott Smith who made his name and reputation there before moving into a larger and more damaging world.
Singer-guitarist Arran Fagan, here three albums into a career, offers deeply personal observations in songs of depth – and sometimes an elegant simplicity -- embellished by viola, bass, piano and pedal steel.
In recent years Fagan has seen some tough times – a relationship break-up, booze and an addictive personality, depression and such – which he dealt with on the previous album Sad Old Songs (better than the title suggests).
Once again there is dark catharsis at the core of this collection and these songs are a hard look in the mirror and at relationships around him.
That said, he frequently sounds more accepting of himself (“let life begin again . . . but sometimes truth is found in lies”) on the slightly self-lacerating title track. Running in Circles might be personal but he makes it sound universal in its grand sweep of love winding down and ending in an emotional cul de sac.
Dirt Bag might also be self-directed, but the lovely Mary reveals a more empathetic side of his writing as he steps out of himself into considering the life of a young mother who ran from her past. Emily is a warm but clear-eyed love letter.
There is emotional and musical drama too (Election Day), and although Revelations sounds spiteful and accusatory it is ultimately accepting of the other's foibles.
What carries the listener here is the clarity of his insight, the dextrous vocal power and emotion he brings, and the arrangements which add essential colour.
And the suspended judgment he can bring in the turn of a phrase: “Sometimes it's hard to live but easy to survive . . . I don't know about tomorrow”.
On Beautiful Disaster he considers the death of someone and wonders where they go in that moment, but also the vagaries of “the casting of the Master” which is the title.
As with Elliott Smith's best work – but very different, of course – it is hard to pull yourself away from these intense and memorable songs.