It is one thing to do what U2 has done and stay relevant and creative four decades in. It is quite another thing though to soar for four albums as Deacon Blue did in the late 80s and early 90s then take pretty much an eighteen year old break (we’ll ignore 1999’s Homesick as a wee blip) and then run headlong into the richest vein of form.
I am sure there were those back in 2012 who thought a comeback album of new material was ill advised. I am sure many thought “bless them a few new waning songs for the loyal fans”. Few imagined that in the next eight years Deacon Blue would four records that have simply got better and better.
City Of Love is that fourth record of Deacon Blue’s second incarnation and it is quite brilliant from beginning to end.
Front man Ricky Ross released a pre Deacon Blue record, So Long Ago, in 1983 on Glasgow’s independent label, Sticky Music. Ten years later I managed Iain Archer who also released his first album on that label. I often wonder if Steve Butler at Sticky Music gave Ricky the same advice as he gave Iain - “always have a band that is better than you are”.
Deacon Blue Mk 1 had the late Graeme Kelling whose guitar breaks were as sharp as his look and bass player Ewen Vernal who could do jazz, folk or rock and fused them beautifully. Jim Prime’s grace note flourishes on keys could christen him the Roy Bittan of Ayrshire. Douglas Vipond’s drumming is strong solid and yet imaginatively supple too. Lorraine McIntosh’s backing vocals blended so perfectly with Ross’s lead that they had to get married!
City Of Love reveals that Prime, Vipond and McIntosh are even better than they were at the band’s heyday, more experienced and intuitive. Gregor Philp has sensitively filled the sadness of Kelling’s passing and added his own personality, particularly on the bluesy Keeping My Faith Alive all sharp guitars and dramatic space. Lewis Gordon also finds himself more embedded on City Of Love. Check the bass drive of Hit Me Where It Hurts.
On top of all this, City Of Love has me wondering if Ricky Ross is the Scottish Paul McCartney. This is an album is so crammed full of melodies that have you inhabiting them even before you get to the end of the first listen.
The title track itself, whether the anthemic album version or recent stripped back radio version, is most obviously going to be. It’s the first single. The first grab for the audience’s attention and boy does this one grab the attention.
However, this is a record chock-full of catchy tunes. Hit Me Where It Hurts, Weight Of The World, In Our Room, A Walk In The Woods and Come On In. Even the final track, On Love, much of which is spoken, has a chorus that sneaks underneath the skin. Very few writers have the ability to be so prolific in such accessibility.
And I hear the naysayer shout something about Silly Love Songs and again I wonder if that proves my point. Like McCartney the accessible pop song has somehow been prejudiced against, the gift of it dismissed rather than coveted.
This Deacon Blue album is a collection of love songs. Not silly, however. It seems that Ross discovered that some of the bones of St Valentine, a forearm we are told, can be found in John Duns Scotus Franciscan Church. Apparently, Lorraine’s parents were married there.
This seems to have caught Ross’s interest and he set out on a task to write an album about all kinds of stories of love from around his adopted city of Glasgow. What a job he does.
There is a lot of walking going on in these songs. People are walking floors and streets and even into the woods. Their journeys are seeking restoration, realignment, reorientation and ultimately redemption.
Deacon Blue’s trademark was laid down on their very first record - HOME - WORK - FAITH. Cities are made up of the working out of those three things. Love wraps them altogether and it is in that love that brings hope even in the darkest corners.
There is always a subtle spirituality that gives a weight to Deacon Blue’s most recent releases. Keeping My Faith Alive is not only a song here but maybe a tag line to the entire deal.
The fascinating spoken word closer with its nod to 90s b-sides Faifley and It Was Like That has a gently powerful chorus:
“Love never had a reason before
So what d’ya wanna know
If it never had a reason before
What are you trying to make sense for”
Love just is. No rational science.
That of course is what the title track is about too.
All that remains is the city of love
All that remains is the city of love
The city of love.
City of Love is a song and record that seeks the hope of another day, another city, another way to live. All that remains is love. At the end of that beautiful poem that the apostle Paul writes about love in 1 Corinthians 13, he concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Love. All that remains.
This is a perfect soundtrack for the walk.