THE PEASANT HAS RETURNED
Donald McPherson and the new obscurity
Consider these lyrics from Donald McPherson’s 1994 debut album, Some Songs, one of the ten releases that the great recluse of Dunedin music recently made available on Bandcamp under “name your price” conditions.
Someday cats will chase the dogs & mice will grow to fuck the cats
Helpful hands will open doors, & ships will welcome back the rats…
Prophetic? Not for McPherson; yet. It seems hardly a week can go by without the international underground railroad coughing up some new lost gem; sometimes as re-releases but most assiduously via the internet. Some Songs ought to have been among them by now, but as it was released in an edition of 20 lathe-cut copies, you’ll be forgiven for never knowing it existed – though it easily stands alongside its near contemporaries, Alastair Galbraith’s Talisman and Crude’s Inner City Guitar Perspectives as a document of rugged individualist Dunedin splendour.
Why didn’t hundreds of people here and overseas find out about him, correspond with him, release his albums around the world, as has happened to so many others? The succinct answer is that he didn’t want them to. Forget the arch, faux-feyness presented as a signifier of sensitivity - Wes Anderson, etc - McPherson is the real, awkward deal. An artist of consummate skill, a lyricist who consistently ekes poetic magic out of his obsessions, and one of the most extraordinary improvising guitarists you will ever hear, who just wants to be left alone to get on with it. A candidate, perhaps, for bagging and shipping as “outsider art”, he is in reality just a clever, quiet guy who cannot and will not, as his song title has it, disown his own mind.
It’s often seemed, to this writer, a terrible shame, though. There is simply so much - so much care, craft, inspired looseness, mad whimsy, invention, sheer beauty - in his music sometimes, it feels ridiculous to not be part of some wider community who’ve been touched by it as well. It is not, by any means, about small or obscure ideas. But the obscurity of its presentation dogs it; and this deluge of material, starting a few months ago, prompts the question of whether it constitutes a true tide-turning, or a new obscurity.
Back when records were records, so to speak, there was time and proportion involved in how you became acquainted with an artists’ work. With the sheer glut of material available online, one wonders how on earth anyone has the time to work out what’s good. Where once dedicated fans created brilliant contexts for all sorts of scenes in fan/magazines, the blogosphere suffers from the same glut conditions, as well as often feeling simply less engaged - less individual. Then, McPherson has filled these collections with all sorts of nubbins and byways, interesting (sometimes) as process, but a lot to process. Breakups & Breakdowns, at two and a half hours long, is maddening. But, since it begins with 15 of his most stunning written songs – his voice and guitar playing showing massive maturation and depth - one senses that he knew what he had; if not when to stop. For improv, Mirrors & Windows and Variety Show are good places to start – filled with the fibrous melodic invention that no-one else ever quite manages – but Anomalies’ swag of tentative trials might drive one seriously batty.
But whether or not anyone bothers to listen and work it all out, it’s just so good it’s there. Like the peasant in his eponymous song,
he’s brought disease with his rats and fleas
& some chimpanzees from the Seychelles
but you’re happy just to find him again.
see http://donaldmcpherson.bandcamp.com and tune in to Avantgardening on Radio 1 91fm, 10.30pm, this Sunday evening for more.
Originally published in POINT issue#37, 24-30th July 2013.