Songs of tender reflection from an often-overlooked national treasure, Boo Hewerdine.
Release Date: 27th May 2022
Label: Reveal Records
Formats: CD / Download
Boo Hewerdine is becoming quite a regular At The Barrier presence. He first popped up on these pages back in September 2019 when we were thrilled by his collection of original songs – the excellent Before album. He was back in March last year, when Reveal Records celebrated his 60th birthday in style with Selected Works, an album that gave latecomers to Boo’s extensive back-catalogue the chance to do a bit of catching up. Most recently, we were charmed by Singularities, Boo’s 6-track mini album of collaborations with a bunch of friends that included Vlado Nosal, Brian Johnson and Jenny Sturgeon. On each and every occasion, we were flabbergasted by the depth and quality of the songs that Boo had to offer and now, he’s back again, with Understudy – an album that just might prove to be his best yet.
For those in the know, Boo Hewerdine is, undoubtedly, a National Treasure. Unfortunately, that status is often overlooked, but even those who have only followed his career from a distance will almost certainly have encountered him as a collaborator – with Eddi Reader, maybe Brooks Williams; Clive Gregson or Darden Smith, perhaps; or even KD Lang or Chris Difford. When you look hard enough, you’ll find that Boo Hewerdine has been a pretty ubiquitous presence in quality, off-mainstream, music for a long time.
In fact, Boo has been around now for over 40 years. He first came to prominence with The Bible, the band he founded in 1985 with jazz drummer Tony Shepherd. The Bible scored a minor hit in 1989 with their single, Graceland, after which, Boo set off on his own to pursue solo interests. He’s made at least 11 solo albums, starting in 1992 with his solo debut Ignorance – and, as this latest offering demonstrates, the inspirations just keep on coming.
Understudy finds Boo in a reflective mood. The twelve songs cover topics inspired – at both a personal and a global level – by the times we live in, and include subjects like personal relationships, a contemplation of personal worth, destructive energies, the suffering of others and, most poignantly, the loss of a close relative – something that many, including Boo, have had to endure over the past couple of years. Indeed, the album is dedicated to Boo’s late father who, sadly, passed away in his care home during lockdown. As Boo says: “We’ve all been through the strangest time. This album was written in my Glasgow flat. I was unable to visit my dad in his care home. But we would talk every day. I turned 60 (I’m 25 in real life). I lost dad. I fell in love with my home life. I rediscovered the joys of writing all the time. I made new remote friends. This album is a reflection of this strange time. It is a record.”
If, by my summary above, I’ve painted a downbeat picture of the material on Understudy, then that’s unfair – because, as well as considering the traumas of life, as amplified by lockdown isolation, it’s clear that Boo found, also, the space in which to think about the positives of life. Several of the songs collected here concern themselves with the rebirth of hope, and the overwhelming emotion that the album offers the listener is one of optimism and of a new, brighter, dawn that is just beginning to make its presence felt.
Indeed, the album gets off to a positive start with the gentle, reassuring Magnets. Boo is on top vocal form and Gustaf Ljunggren, another At The Barrier favourite, spoons on the sweetness with some divine lap steel licks, as Boo delivers the message “Just like that, I’ve come to see, that we are magnets – you and me.”
Subtle instrumentation is a feature that pervades Understudy. Boo plays just about everything, including guitars, piano and light percussion and producer Chris Pepper has layered Boo’s contributions, and those of the band of guest helpers – the aforementioned Gustaf Ljunggren amongst them – carefully and tastefully. And that approach pays particular dividends in Useful, an excellent song that articulates the sentiment that we all feel as the years pass, and we consider whether we remain useful or relevant to a changing world. Boo’s slidy guitar lines and soft percussion meshes delightfully with more of Gustaf’s charming lap steel.
Chris’s production reaches its richest for Men Without A War, a cowrite between Boo, Audrey Hewerdine and long-time collaborator Vlado Nosal. Strings and a rocky electric guitar add substance to Boo’s piano on a song that considers the ways in which men direct their destructive energies during periods in which there’s no war to ‘enjoy.’ Piano and guitar share the theme that drives Someone Else’s Blues, whilst the gaps are filled by some tasty organ licks. The tribulations of others are contemplated as Boo sings “As empty as the comedy that comes after The News – nothing is as hard as someone else’s blues” and the whole thing is topped off by a wonderful trumpet/ sax/ clarinet playout.
The slow, painful decline of Boo’s father is the subject of Why I Bring You Flowers – a cowrite with Kim Richey – and Pete Harvey’s lovely cello adds deep poignancy, before things get a little lighter for the poppy, Beatlish, The Thing You Love. The mood gets poppier still for Dream Within A Dream, a soft ballad that evokes Buddy Holly in one of his mellower moods. The vocal harmonies from guests The Key Notes add an almost Disney-like feel to a song that is impossible to dislike and which is sufficiently radio-friendly to – just possibly – become a surprise hit.
The sparsity of Ancestors, a song with a pared-back accompaniment of acoustic guitar, is a notable contrast to the richness of The Thing You Love. Nevertheless, it’s an album highlight, with a fascinating lyric that ponders the legacies all around us that have left by generations long-gone, before coming to the realization that, all too soon, it will be the legacies that we leave behind that will be the subject of such contemplation.
In The Day I Fell in Love With The World, perhaps the most unconditionally joyful song on the album, Boo captures that rare feeling we all occasionally experience when everything about the world seems just right. The upbeat backing is laced with piano and string effects that stop just on the right side of the line that divides subtlety from schmaltz. The optimistic theme is retained for Spring, a light, bright number that floats along, as Boo expresses the sentiments that are stirred by the lengthening days and green-turning trees, and the impacts that the change of season stir in human emotion.
The theme of Euston Station, the album’s third and final co-write – this time Boo’s brother Ben is the collaborator – will be familiar to anyone who has spent unwelcome and unplanned hours hanging about a London railway terminus. Boo recalls his first and his subsequent visits to Euston Station – the interminable waits, the flickering of the Departures board and the tinkling of the concourse piano – all to a tune that is incongruously bright and bouncy. It’s another excellent song and, to anyone who has, like me, spent enough time on the Euston concourse for it to feel like an unwanted second home, the imagery is vivid.
Understudy ends as gently as it started, with Afternoons, a heartfelt memoir in which Boo recalls family life before, and after, the passing of his father David. It’s obviously a sad song, but I was left with the impression that, by expressing such sentiments so publicly, Boo was actually finding peace and the resolve to carry on. There’s a lot of that going on with Understudy – a tremendous album from a National Treasure.
Anyone who enjoys Understudy as much as we do will be pleased to hear that Boo Hewerdine is currently touring the UK. His schedule is as follows:
19th May Quay Arts Centre, Isle of Wight
20th May Alne Music Club, Easingwold, N.Yorks
21st May Stoller Hall, Manchester
22nd May Philharmonic, Liverpool
26th May Cottiers, Glasgow
27th May Launderette Sessions, Durham
28th May Harbour Arts Centre, Irvine
2nd June Junction, Cambridge
4th June The Railway Inn, Winchester
11th June The Lemon Tree, Keighley
Listen to Useful – one of the album’s many great songs – here: