The Great Depression

Robyn G Shiels finally releases some new material - James Meredith thinks it was well worth the wait

Robyn G Shiels has been around for a while now. Quite a while. His debut release, a split 7” single with Desert Hearts, ‘Two Nights in June’, was released back in 2004. It received a lot of good press (including an 8 star review on the influential webzine Drowned in Sound, which compared his folk-country sound to Elliott Smith and Will Oldham).

This was followed by an album, A Lifetime of Midnights, in 2005, which raised his reputation further. Then it all went quiet.

Recording-wise, anyhow. Shiels still appeared in high profile support slots for the likes of The Low Anthem, Cat Power, Richard Hawley and the aforementioned Will Oldham, as well as sessions for Radio One and performances in the UK and America.

Meanwhile local fans were kept happy with semi-regular live performances by Shiels and his band – Clare Hutchinson on keyboards and backing vocals alongside Ellen Turley, with Ben McAuley on additional guitar and drums. Some astonishing new material was being performed, and that only made the wait for another record more frustrating.

In 2009, it was announced that Shiels had been working with ex-Therapy? drummer, Fyfe Ewing on an album, Blood of the Innocents. It never appeared. Some wondered if we’d ever hear a Shiels record again.

Then came the Northern Irish made movie Cherrybomb. Written by playwright Daragh Carville, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, it featured Harry Potter’s Rupert (Ron Weasley) Grint in his first starring role, as well as Misfits Robert Sheehan.

Initially unable to find a UK distributor, an online campaign by Potter fans was credited with helping to secure a deal. Although a mediocre movie, it has a great soundtrack – handpicked by David Holmes – including songs by Cashier No. 9, Fuck Buttons and Holmes himself.

The highlight, though, is Shiels’ ‘Hello Death,’ a macabre little nursery rhyme ditty with a lyrical nod to Malvina Reynolds’ classic folk ballad ‘Little Boxes.’

It turns out that ‘Hello Death My Old Friend’ was a mere appetiser for The Great Depression, a 5-track EP of such heartworn (and heartfelt) beauty it should immediately elevate Kilrea-born Shiels to national treasure status.

Opening song ‘When We Were Brothers’ begins with Shiels’ naked voice – bruised, yet richly timbered and endearing – confessing that he 'shot a man who was not there / A bad moon follows me everywhere', before McAuley’s brushed drums are joined by Hutchinson’s minimal piano notes.

A rousing accordion carries the listener off on a mysterious tale of inherited sin where everyone dies 'in their own hearts and their own way'. It’s a song – and a sound – that seems as old as the hills and as fresh as tomorrow’s news.

‘The Love of an Honest Man’ follows, whose unnamed narrator 'shared my bed with the shame I’ve known / I bathed in blood that was not my own'. The sparse instrumentation and delicate harmonies carry Shiels’ resigned vocal over a lazy shuffle beat.

The highlight of the EP – and the most affecting song on the record – is ‘Look What You’ve Done,’ (listen below) a tale of regret and disappointment at how a relationship can be undone by one of the lovers.

The song has the momentum of a funeral march, until the music rises, like a wave of despair, before falling away and leaving only the faintest percussion and guest musician Tom Hughes’ mournful cello. The song ends with 'the flowers of romance' buried deep into the ground.

The final two songs, ‘The Lastest Greatest Comedienne’ and ‘Hell is…’ feature perhaps the strongest tunes on the record. Stripped back to just guitar and vocals, with Turley’s added bowed saw on ‘Hell is…’, these are songs that a postman could whistle – though a postman of a somewhat melancholic bent.

The latter song also features the wonderfully Leonard Cohen-esque line: 'I never knew words could crucify until I knew your name.' Wonderful. The Great Depression is available from iTunes.