Robyn G Shiels’ second album has attained almost mythic status. It’s now almost eight-and-a-half years since he released his debut, A Lifetime Of Midnights, which makes The Blood Of The Innocents something akin to Shiels’ Chinese Democracy.
In fact, it was completed back in 2008 – a mere three years after its predecessor – and promos have been circulating since then, but for whatever reason it has taken a further five years and more for it to be released.
Truth is, Shiels has been active throughout that time, with several EP releases – including The Great Depression – and regular gig supports, and the odd headline show, in Belfast and elsewhere under his belt. Not to mention his regular appearances at his friends’ gigs, heckling the likes of Cashier No.9 and Desert Hearts from the front row.
He is, as they say, a character – the archetypal whiskey-soaked troubadour. Belfast’s answer to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. The Bard of the Bann.
The latter epithet is not intended to be facetious. Shiels is a songwriter of rare talent, with a flair for words both beautiful and brutal, often simultaneously, the brutality often directed at himself, in fact. Any regular gig-goer in Belfast will know that as a man, he is not without humour.
But that humour is rarely evident in his music, a fact he often makes self-deprecating reference to. Instead, it’s a means with which he tells haunting stories and confronts his demons: namely drink, failed relationships, and mortality. The song titles here are clues in themselves: ‘Drunk Myself A River’, ‘This Deathly Charm’, ‘Hello Death…’ et cetera.
Produced by Shiels himself with Ben McAuley and ex-Therapy? drummer Fyfe Ewing, and recorded with a crack band featuring members of Cashier No.9 and Ewing, The Blood Of The Innocents is in every respect a step up from his debut.
It’s an emotionally turbulent record, its 11 songs full of anger and sorrow, but executed with so much heart and skill that it ends up feeling cathartic – a primal scream set to rough-hewn folk-rock.
Fans will already know ‘Hello Death…’, a cracked folk lament that appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Cherrybomb, featuring Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint. Its sparse arrangement is well matched to Shiels’ haunted croak and the bleak lyrics, but its sound is atypical, because this is a big record with big melodies and big arrangements. It deserves a big audience.
Take ‘Tender Is The Night’, for example. It’s heralded by Ewing’s booming drums and he drives the song forward, through its anthemic chorus and on to a hard-rocking instrumental break. But the song closes on a contemplative note, not a triumphant one.
‘Drunk Myself A River’ is soaked in alcoholic regret, but its barroom energy and high-spirited yelps are such that it’s as much a song for drinking as about drinking. Likewise, ‘The Last Waltz’ (its title a neat doff of the cap to obvious influences, The Band) swells and sways majestically in the manner of a much-loved end-of-the-night tune.
There are choppy guitar riffs on ‘From Hell To High Water’, dirty slide guitar and boot-stomping drums on the sinister title track, and an all-out power ballad in ‘When Love It Starts Leavin”.
But despite the gloriously full sound of the record, Shiels is at his best when he is at his most tender and vulnerable. ‘If Now Is An Echo’, ‘This Deathly Charm’ and ‘The First To Know’ are a trio of tear-stained country ballads that show Shiels’ talents at their absolute best.
Each of them is a moving mini-masterpiece in its own right, dappled with piano or accordion and fit to stand alongside any of the musicians Shiels has supported or been compared to over the years – Will Oldham, Elliott Smith, Cat Power – the lot.
All these years after they were recorded, it’s to his credit that he kept faith in the songs on the album, and resisted what must have been huge temptation to release them separately or even to discard them altogether.
Taken as a whole, and with the other eight songs here, they present a magnificent body of work and affirmation, should it be needed, that Robyn G Shiels is one of Northern Ireland’s greatest living songwriters.
Chris Jones for Culture NI