The solo output of US songwriter Mickey Newbury (1940 – 2002) has always been overshadowed by more high-profile recordings of his tunes by stars the calibre of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison (and more recently Will Oldham and Nick Cave).
Apart from proving that Newbury was the by far the best interpreter of his own songs, this overdue, luxurious package that compiles three seminal yet long out-of-print early solo albums cut for Mercury and Elektra at Newbury’s late 60s/early 70s creative peak (complete with a fourth disc of demos, rarities and a previously unreleased radio session) leaves some contradictory impressions. Not about the quality of music: these three records must rank as amongst the finest ever produced in that permanently overcast territory between folk, country and pop balladry populated by such melancholy cult giants as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. Even so, it’s just as easy to curse the record buying public for denying Newbury the mass acclaim his towering talents so acutely demanded as it is to sympathise fully with listeners who chose to keep a healthy distance from the Texan songwriter’s deep, deep blues. For this is some seriously heavy stuff. The protagonists of these down-tempo songs frequently torture themselves with tear-stained reminisces of better times they know very well will never return, their anguish perfectly articulated by Newbury’s expressive burr of a voice and economic yet richly detailed acoustic arrangements. Hit parade material this is not.
1969’s Looks Like Rain is a certified jaw-dropper: seemingly much too slow-burning, sparse and miserable for its own good at first, these seven lengthy, unhurriedly evolving tracks, linked to one another with recordings of rainfall and wind chimes, soon build a hypnotic, wounded momentum. Rain is an apt choice for a sound effect, for rarely has an album been this drenched in regret, heartbreak and hard-won wisdom. Even the most desolate moments of definite kindred spirit Townes Van Zandt – fans of whom should snap up this box without delay – sound like party bangers next to the likes of heartbroken self-deception of ‘I Don’t Think Too Much of Her’ (later retitled ‘Poison Red Berries’). At times, the ever-present sadness, perpetuated by the weeping choir that pops in to underline payoff moments, threatens to become too overbearing, but the undeniable substance and emotional resonance of Newbury’s unclassifiable songcraft keep accusations of cheap melodrama at bay.
Frisco Mabel Joy (1971) – strangely the only one of the three albums not to include the superb song its named after – is almost the equal of its masterful predecessor, spearheaded by Newbury’s only solo hit An American Trilogy, this original version’s dignified majesty later pumped up to heroically inflated dimensions by Elvis’ classic rendering. But 1973’s Heaven Help the Child just might be the pick of the bunch. A more varied and richly textured treat – strings feature prominently – than its two predecessors, it’s easily the most accessible introduction to Newbury’s singular talents. The title track’s majestic mini-symphony – just try not to get moved as the tune shifts up a gear at that bit about building walls instead of bridges – and the ghostly, (seemingly) time travelling narrative it supports are bound to knock the listener out cold on first listen. The country-soul funkiness of ‘Sunshine’s almost as potent, the arrangement’s uncharacteristic joy failing to fully masquerade that the heartache at the song’s core is just as profound as that driving the tearstained ‘Good Morning, Dear’.