Music Reviews
Hey Mr Ferryman

Mark Eitzel Hey Mr Ferryman

(Merge) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Every Mark Eitzel album unfolds as a new opportunity to discover more about an artist who rarely looks back. Even during his much celebrated run with American Music Club, there was always a moderate degree of unpredictability even if the musical backbone never veered too far off course. A new record meant a new self-contained story, a challenge for Eitzel to express his delicate, yet intense lyrical concepts. Hey Mr Ferryman marks an important stage for Eitzel, as it’s a comeback of sorts after having suffered some near-death health complications. But instead of taking a more personal approach, he’s going back to the everyday stories of ordinary people. His are characters who present the throes of human existence, and he never opts to cheapen the quality of his work if it ever compromises their essential truths. It leads us to believe that we’ll never get to really know Eitzel, except that this is the only way that we’ll ever get to know him.

What’s more surprising about Hey Mr Ferryman is how Eitzel has naturally grown into a more commanding vocalist, a quality that takes more heft when you consider that his narrative style can sometimes be a touch capricious. It forces us to pay attention, and yet we never exactly gauge where his oral aptitude will take us. Sometimes he’s measured, like on the jazz-tinged Just Because, where he profoundly proclaims “Just because someone loves you / doesn’t mean you can count them out,” its meaning continually evolving by simply changing the last word of that chorus. Other times it’s like he’s trying to keep up to the tempo, like in the soft-rock groove of The Last Ten Years, where he pointedly quips ("I spent the last ten years / yeah… / trying to waste half an hour") about a drunken man who, like Charon the ferryman, is heading into a personal purgatory.

Hey Mr Ferryman is also one of the most musically robust releases in Eitzel’s entire career, where he expands on his quieter nature with sweeping widescreen ballads. The Answer begins with a hushed, undisturbed piano melody, a brief moment of silence that builds into a dramatic, and fiercely passionate, string-soaked elegy that ruminates on love’s mysterious power. He follows the graceful elegance of writers like Mark Hollis and Guy Garvey on Nothing and Everything, an acoustic-led lament on domestic abuse that casts a gloomy splendor with haunting effect.

Despite these grander gestures, the overall tone of Hey Mr Ferryman still rings true to Eitzel’s more inauspicious observations. He wonders “Why are the righteous always eager for war” on In My Role as Professional Singer and Ham, where his stray thoughts commingle between the political and the personal before he delivers a devastating blow in the song’s chorus. “When you look at me / you look away,” he croons with extra emphasis to the word away, while the dirge of funereal horns ends in a bleak crescendo. The album deals a lot with weighing uncertainty, and letting expectations go, but as Ferryman progresses it turns calmer and calmer. Once it reaches its finale on Sleep from my Eyes, Eitzel sounds exhausted, but deep down, more at ease. He gently coos to someone on his safe shelter, with an intimacy that’s almost too close for comfort, ending with the words “What will we do”. It leaves more questions than answers, but the ambiguity that it creates is indelible.

In lending a wider scope to Hey Mr Ferryman, Eitzel has allowed himself to open up in a way that doesn’t always come natural to him. It’s safe to say that’s part of the reason why he’s struggled to become a more recognizable face, though the album’s grander vision does give the songs a new constitution even if his ability to tell stories hasn’t changed. This is smart, meditative music that needs the appropriate time to vest, where further listening provides new perspectives and details that weren’t as apparent at first glance. That Eitzel has managed to deliver some of his strongest work in thirty plus years is testament to his growing confidence, and provides another compelling reason to be considered a notable figure in the veteran class of folk artists like Mark Kozelek and Will Oldham. It's an honest glimpse into the lives of those who are just as imperfect as we are.