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Spins: Michael McDermott • What in the World…

| July 9, 2020

Michael McDermott

What in the World…

(Pauper Sky)

Chicago’s Americana and folk-rock hero Michael McDermott’s 15th solo album finds his songwriting sharp and full of fire. The high-spirited title track of What in the World… is a thundering folk-rock anthem for the election year that unleashes a torrential flood of words a la Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” railing against the “dark days coming for the USA.” McDermott’s lengthy list includes kids in cages, welfare for billionaires, and every social conflict predating the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s pretty clear that the President’s a criminal,” the acknowledged patriot pointedly states, in case you weren’t sure of his position. “What in the world is happening here?,” he asks, more than rhetorically.

“New York, Texas” is gentler by comparison. It’s the song of itinerant souls that may not have hope, but are looking for it. Ghosts of the past encourage a couple on the move to find reasons to be grateful. “Blue Eyed Barmaid” is a tavern tale from a songwriter who no longer visits the pub to drink, but maintains a keen eye for the traits and details that make true-life characters their own compelling universes. This particular subject of indelible memory “never heard of Del Amitri, but she loved Car Seat Headrest.” The song’s tumbling acoustic guitar arpeggios hint at the pop-savvy of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”

“I wasted so much time waiting for things I’ll never get,” sings McDermott in “The Things You Want,” when the necessary things “are standing oh so near.” It’s another reminder to be present, mindful, and appreciative of things and people during the fleeting time that we have them – even in challenging relationships with parents, etc. “The Veils of Veronica” is a haunted memory of a broken soul adrift and weary of the world, and those who cherished and wanted to save her.

Reflective piano and muted pedal steel carry the current of “Die with Me.” The song reflects and mourns an elder’s love that will be lost to time when the singer passes. However, it concludes with McDermott’s belief in the next generation’s ability to evolve and shed entrenched biases and hatred.

At the other end of the spectrum is the grim swamp-rocker “Mother Emanuel,” focusing on the cold-hearted 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. The characters include a killer with his vision of civil war and without care for the personal costs for those left behind. Others include the ones left bereft, who nonetheless offer forgiveness in the face of unthinkable loss. The episode showed humanity at its cold-hearted worst. But as President Obama wrote at the time, it also revealed that the “decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families.”

The rollicking “No Matter What” takes a backward look at life misspent with drink and drugs, and the common refrain that made it seem like another person’s life: “I was still drinking then.” McDermott offers brotherhood and encouragement to anyone facing a similar fight. “Don’t give up no matter what,” he sings. “You’re worth it.”

“Until I Found You” is a sweet acoustic-based song of thanks for all of the life lessons learned when the right companion finally entered McDermott’s life. The singer exits with shades of Bruce Springsteen during “Positively Central Park.” He’s not sure what comes after this life, but wants to build a loving bond worthy of eternal memory and hallowed ground.

At the heart of What in the World… is the confessional and self-deprecating “Contender.” The song’s uptempo and festive swing is a diversionary tactic paired with a lyric that recalls youthful dreams and ambitions, followed by self-inflicted wounds. The bouncing pulse is elevated with Rich Parenti’s jaunty saxophone and its hints of Clarence Clemons’ work with the E Street Band, even while McDermott accepts the notion that he didn’t become the type of boss he might have wished. While he may not have become the Next Big Thing that some predicted upon the release of 620 W. Surf nearly 30 years ago, McDermott’s still in the fight and producing his best material on his own terms and under his own considerable power, in the tradition of Chicago saints like Steve Goodman and John Prine. What in the World… collects clear-headed and relatable examinations of troubles and joys–from within and without–and does so with intelligence, heart, and melody. (

– 8 of 10

Jeff Elbel

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Category: Spins, Weekly

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