It has long been an open secret, at least among ‘us critics’, that the good Doctor, Sean Millar, is Ireland’s greatest living singer-songwriter. That this critical acclaim has never been matched by commercial success is immaterial (in the philosophical sense, at least, if not the financial one), as such mainstream acceptance has eluded lots of the finest: Bill Fay, Sixto Rodriguez, the Go-Betweens, etc. In a perfect world, Doctor Millar would be as big as the Corrs were.
Since 1995’s solo debut, The Bitter Lie, every Sean Millar album has been an event, but if possible, C48 ups his game. While its title slyly refers back to the NME’s now legendary C86 cassette tape of indie luminaries, the salad days of men and women who are now of a certain age, the album can also be defined by a new maturity in Millar’s work.
Opener ‘Wake Up Outside London’ could be The Bitter Lie’s ‘Alcohol Problem’ anti-hero poet manqué revisited, twenty years later. All his friends have ‘settled down’ with wives, kids, houses, but he’s still going to distant parties, without even the fare home. ‘You button up your coat because your shirt is stained with wine’. What elevates this above just another sob story of a refusal (or inability) to grow up is the pathos of someone whose problems are so ill-defined yet all-pervasive that they are not ever going to be solved by talking to someone. “You’re on the run from heartbreak / You’re on the run from shame / People want to understand / But you just can’t explain“.
It makes sense that this road not taken, might-have-been life (Doctor Millar’s double, his shadow self) is followed by the life that is being lived now. ‘My Kids’ is as transparently eloquent as its title suggests, a paean to the writer’s offspring, “…like gold to me/ In you I see my prosperity/ Oh, my little apple tree”.
Indeed love, in its many varieties, guises and incarnations, is the prevailing theme of the record. From the straight-up contented blue-eyed soul of a gorgeous duet with Miriam Ingram, ‘I’ve Never Loved Somebody’; to the hard-won victory of ‘Dancing with Dogs’, lent a vague trad vibe by Steve Wickham’s fiddle figures; to the unrequited desperation of ‘You Fill My Heart with Greed’, replete with prime Dylanesque drawl; to the visceral void of frankly self-explanatory hidden track ‘Sick with Desire’: it’s all in there.
The Cohenesque phrasing, intonation and chops of ‘Your Eyes Like Sorrow’, and the odd perspective shift of ‘Don’t Take It Out on the Boy’ are among Millar’s grittiest, most unvarnished compositions yet, where lyrical dexterity is equal to the complex emotions involved.
In contrast to many riding under the singer-songwriter banner, and perhaps because of the very excellence of his songwriting gifts, both the Doctor’s singing and his guitar-playing prowess often go overlooked. The voice is, by turns, rich and deep, and light and airy, when it needs to be, in accordance with the material. His finger-picking is up there with the best of them, as are his blues bends in his soloing, as illustrated on ‘I’ve Never Loved Somebody’ and ‘You Fill My Heart with Greed’.
He is ably abetted here by Joe Chester on occasional guitar, who does his best Richard Hawley out of Chris Isaak out of Hank Marvin out of Link Wray eerie Bigsby vibrato on ‘The Devil’s Dirty Rhyme’, a slice of Nick Cave/Gun Club country gothic, but he is more than capable of doing his own version of spooky, as the twangy solo on ‘Something About the Way He Walks’ demonstrates. Also indispensible to this palette are Steve Wickham’s contributions, most especially on the above-mentioned ‘Dancing with Dogs’, ‘Your Eyes Like Sorrow’ and ‘The Devil’s Dirty Secret’, but also the closer ‘The Morning Shift’. This parting shot is yet another gem, in voice and mood the wondrous hybrid child of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ (in its Johnny Cash version).
It’s time to reach for the Thesaurus of Superlatives: rawest, subtlest, most passionate, most insightful. Has Sean Millar, the fabulous physician of the heart and soul, made his Blood on the Tracks? His Desire? Or a blend of both? Whatever. You won’t hear a better album of original material by an Irish artist all year.