Saturday, 24 October 2020

Night Owl - Gerry Rafferty


Provenance: When I was in Year 4 I was selected to be one of three pupils in my school to appear on a breakfast request show at Hospital Radio Bedside in Bournemouth.

Selection was undertaken on the basis of letters we had written to the station manager, stating why we would make good radio presenters. I assume the other two wrote something funny or charming to secure their guest slots.

I, on the other hand, had written in saying that my favourite ever song was 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty. A pretty slick pick for a eight or nine year old in the mid-1990s. As it transpired, when I was asked to step up as selecta for the beleaguered and ailing patients of Royal Bournemouth Hospital, I opted for the pop-reggae of China Black's 'Searching'.

Nonetheless, my regard for 'Baker Street' never waned, and to this day I consider it to be almost perfect. It was, I think, for this reason that it took me a quarter of a century to follow up and investigate more of Rafferty's back catalogue. My fear was that 'Baker Street' was a wild one-off, and that everything else would either be bereft of any of the elements that made 'Baker Street' so special, or a pale imitation, albums clogged with desperate attempts to bottle that lightning once again.

However, I had read some heartening reviews of both City To City (parent album to 'Baker Street') and this, its follow up, 'Night Owl'. Lo and behold, both albums were available in a two CD set for some ridiculously low price, so I took the plunge. 

It doesn't end there! I played City To City and fell in love; I then faced the trepidation of spinning Night Owl (my fear of being disappointed is layered like an onion), especially given a casual remark by one of my five-a-side teammates - and local heavy rock legend - Kevin, that "nothing got close to City To City where Gerry Rafferty was concerned". Thus Night Owl sat on the shelf until a combination of lockdown and curiosity convinced me to bite the bullet. (NB - isn't that track by Temple absolutely ace?).

Review: To my mind, the best albums are those which, in addition to containing good music, impart a sense of feeling, mood, or place. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Night Owl, which is less rambunctious than its predecessor, doesn't cover as much ground stylistically but comes across as a more cohesive affair through consistently evoking a kind of autumnal twilight. Night Owl is an album to wrap yourself up in against the bite of the evening; it also feels like a consolation to the solitary listener, Rafferty's inimitable voice a sweet, shy presence rimed with a gentle melancholy.

The music itself is mostly mid-paced, classy soft rock, poised somewhere in the same soft rock wheelhouse as Steely Dan, inasmuch as the layers of instrumentation are meticulous and immaculate; and maybe someone like Richard Marx, insofar as there's an undisguised romanticism in Rafferty's writing. However, Night Owl is neither jazzy or tricksy, nor does it ever tip too far towards the saccharine end of the scale. Maybe add the - I can't put this any other way - 'grown-up' sensibilities of Bob Seger's best writing into the mix. I simply cannot imagine kids ever buying this stuff (notable exception: me aged eight). Night Owl sounds every bit the creation of a man who was, by then, in his thirties and had been around the block a bit.

When all elements come together, it's simply lovely. I've already mentioned Rafferty's seemingly low-key vocal delivery, but it's worth talking about again; mid-Atlantic with a Hibernian twist, warm, sad, confiding, and used with the deftness and artistry of a master calligrapher. 'Baker Street' is most notable for its huge saxophone riff played by Raphael Ravenscroft (though I think it also sports one of rock's greatest guitar solos), but Night Owl relies on the vocals for its hooks. Listen to the way Rafferty slides between the chorus lines in the title track, or the way he drags vowels around in 'Days Gone Down'. There's a beautiful push-pull quality to the singing, an instinctive kenning about where to stretch out over the beat or when to gild the melody with understated little variations.

Yet for all the acute intelligence and lush orchestration present, Night Owl is unmistakeably a collection shot through with notions of regret and resignation. Even the most forceful number here, the excellent 'Take The Money and Run', is more rueful than angry. Check out some of the other song titles: 'Why Won't You Talk To Me', 'Get It Right Next Time', 'Already Gone' and 'It's Gonna Be a Long Night'. The most upbeat track 'Days Gone Down' seems to suggest a double meaning, whilst 'Night Owl' is almost harrowing in its portrayal of loneliness in the midst of popular adoration. 'The Tourist' (a title in itself that hints at dilettantism) contains a repeated refrain, 'but it's alright', that sounds utterly unconvincing in the context of a lyric describing the grind of touring. To me it sounds like a coded plea for help.

Does it matter, when everything sounds so effortlessly smooth? The lack of rough edges means that all the musical surfaces of Night Owl slide around each other with the serenity of a mah-jong game, which should be boring. Maybe to contemporary tastes, it is. No matter - I'm the one listening, and writing this review, and when I tune in I'm left with the powerful impression of an artist who treats his music as a refuge from a world he can't quite get to grips with. Remarkable.

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