It is a basic truism that limitation breeds innovation, that artists need constraints to make something glorious. In the Lockdown Landscape of home recording, isolated from all the bells and whistles of a studio, any recording being done needed to either be a memo for later, or get to the true heart of the story it’s telling and be as tight as possible about telling it. Andrew Neil is back again and with all that focus that came with that constraint, he hit on something magical again.
Andrew Neil is a truly fantastic songwriter and when he lets it shine, it shines bright and strong. The latest is a return to the style of his first LP, Code Purple, which was an odd masterpiece of outsider American Primitivism. The bare, echoey recording gives it the feeling of pre-record deal demos of someone like Townes Van Zandt or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. It plays into Neil’s strengths as a songwriter. The title track, “Sunny Side,” is an optimistic and upbeat tune strengthened by the bleak sound of the recording, capturing the duality of hope in times of desperation beautifully. “Heaven” captures a similar duality, depicting an uncompromising faith and uncertainty of what exactly that faith is.
Another shining example of Neil’s songwriting is “Anymore,” which feels almost Replacements-esque with its strong beat and ennui. The refrain of “I don’t wanna grow up/I don’t wanna grow old/I don’t wanna shut up/I don’t wanna be told what to do anymore” is a fantastic inversion of typical artistic depictions of “growing up.” Whereas in adolescence “growing up” is a sign of independence and liberation, but as one enters their 20s they start to be subject to even more pressure to give up on themselves and conform, frequently told it’s the “natural order,” which Neil lambasts with “you can lie/say it’s all part of God’s plan.”
Neil’s guitar work is also impeccable on this album. The frequently very subtle chord shifts compliment the general gift for flow Neil has in his strum. There is a motion to the songs without progression, leaving the listener with the same kind of uneasy relaxation that made Astral Weeks such a bizarrely fantastic album and made the blues generally so revolutionary. I’m particularly impressed by the rhythmic work on “Gambling Man,” very much the bluesiest track on the album, where the time is even but the strum’s start and stop nature creates the perfect backdrop for the sinful, restless character it portrays.
I’m very excited to hear more of Neil’s upcoming work. This shift back to the Code Purple approach to arrangement and production has been massively beneficial to the final product. I would be interested to hear Neil try out slightly more accompaniment than he’s used on this album. “I Awoke” utilizes a piano to accent certain swells in the story being told and it works beautifully. I could easily imagine him working wonders with a violinist or bassist. Surely a happy middle exists between this and the Grunge efforts of Merry-Go-Round.
Sunny Side by Andrew Neil is available now on Bandcamp and Streaming Services.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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