PICTURE GALLERY BLUES is an intriguing, elusive and provocative collection of contemporary folksongs that draws the listener back for repeated visits. Cormac McCarthy has created a series of songs that bring a sense of dignity to the oral tradition of lyric poetry. The songs are deeply personal stories without a linear narrative. McCarthy uses visual references, literary metaphor and poetic images to create a 'picture gallery' that allows the listener to bring the enigmatic characters to life for ourselves. We meet the writer on an aural landscape painted with an eye and an ear for careful attention to detail and a deep respect for the written word.
Contemporary references underscore an urgency that belies the abandonment of both time and locale. I have never heard of a Salvador Dali painting used in a Folk context before ("The watches are melting, I've lost my sense of time"), as in the title song "Picture Gallery Blues". In "Last Ditch" McCarthy writes of the challenge of searching for hope and believing in a love beaten down by a depression that could be either financial or existential. It's as if he has written the songs as captions for Walker Evans' photos.
Pieces of melody are inseparably married to a lyric as literary images that won't let go, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two. The Blues, as referred to by the title of the album, is McCarthy's interpretation of the nature of Blues. He sees them as a celebratory act of singing and playing themes of unending despair, loneliness, betrayal, and loss, thereby casting off the yoke of the singer as victim.
The joy of performance is in evidence by both the singer and the musicians. McCarthy has assembled a topnotch cast of studio musicians to help frame his songs. David Mansfield triples on Electric guitar ("The Immagrant Gangster", "Small House", "That's How It Is"), Fiddle (Map Of Your Heart) and pedal steel (Blue Cadillac) lending a sophisticated counter-melody to all these songs. There is some standout flatpicking guitar and mandolin by John McGann on "Map Of Your Heart". The cut also features some unexpected percussion by Bill Conway in the form of skillets and birch log. We are treated to the muted tones of Chris Botti's trumpet in the song "Blue Cadillac" that seems as though it could have been written from the back of Hank Williams mirror. ( "It takes a lonesome man to sing a lonesome song, and sing it so right, it sees you through to the dawn / God gives the gifts and for the gifts you must pay / For everything given, it's taken away" )
Cormac McCarthy is an accomplished fingerpicker with phrasing that perfectly complements the unexpected turn of lyric images. Peter Gallway's clean production emphasizes the lyric-driven nature of the songs, with a good ear for musical flourishes, fills and dynamics. The production supports the contention that this album must be listened to several times to appreciate fully the depth and beauty of the writing it has captured. Each time I listen, a different song emerges as the central theme of the album ("Picture Gallery Blues", "Run Away", "Last Ditch", "The Immagrant Gangster"). Listening to PICTURE GALLERY BLUES is like digging into the forest floor and finding a dense, rich, tangle of roots.