The five songs on Devil Mocks Me seem to follow a narrative. Our anonymous hero is haunted by an unrequited love. The object of his affection, 'lost out at sea', is always out of reach, and everything – from the waning moon to bad old Lucifer himself – conspire to disappoint and frustrate him; his hopes for some sort of reconciliation continually dashed on the waves.
Gareth Dunlop’s songs, however, far from being morose or mired down by torpid tempos or depressive tones, are full of bounce and bravado, swagger and sway. His protagonist may be troubled by a constant sense of displacement and a longing for love, but there is an earthy optimism here, a revelling in the restorative power of melody and the banging of drums, that lifts the soul. Navel gazers need not apply.
The sound is familiar, but rarely achieved with such overarching success. Comparisons with that other throaty balladeer James Morrison are inevitable, and fans of Foy Vance and Nora Jones will find much to love on songs like ‘Fool’s Desire’, 'Devil Mocks Me' and ‘Find Your Way Back Home’. Katy Melua followers, on the other hand, may not appreciate the complexities...
A gifted and disciplined lyricist, Dunlop writes about love and loss without ever resorting to cliché. He chooses a theme and sticks to it: memories of past disappointments on 'Trick of the Moonlight', for example, or how far he would travel for love on 'What You do To Me'. The occasional Americanism might irk some purists, but then 'dual carriageway' is never going to compete with 'freeway' in the poetry stakes.
Dunlop is also a subtle and sophisticated guitarist – he could peddle these hooks in Nashville or London and come away a very wealthy man. Whether or not your average generic pop star could translate these songs with the same raw emotion and sense of longing that their creator has is up for debate, however.
But what really distinguishes Dunlop from his contemporaries is the fact that he is a man in possession of a voice that could tame dinosaurs. Tom Jones would sell his soul... Otis Redding would do a double-take... You suspect that, in a live setting, any artists unfortunate enough to have been scheduled higher up the bill might just be persuaded to pull a sicky at the thought of following him.
Devil Mocks Me is chock full of catchy, commercial choruses that are instantly familiar; top level musicianship from the likes of pianist John McCullough, drummer Paul Hamilton and horn player Sam Levine (to name but a few); and pitch-perfect production from Brent Maher and Dunlop himself (from the Blue Room Studios, Nashville).
If there is a criticism it is that, at only five songs, Devil Mocks Me is all too short a sonic experience. One worries (only slightly) if Dunlop has the tunes to fill a bona fide long player, but then YouTube provides evidence that this may not be the case.
On the evidence of these five foot-stomping, heart-rending, uplifting songs, Dunlop most certainly has a place in my playlist. And it is the perfect time of year to appreciate his sound: Devil Mocks Me begs to be turned up loud and listened to on sunny summer evenings, in the company of friends, with barbecues smoking and beers in the fridge.
Devil Mocks Me is available now from iTunes.