It has been a while since we last heard any full-length solo work from Neil McSweeney, with his last album Cargo being four years old this year. It is interesting to note in the sleeve though that A Coat Worth Wearing was recorded nearly two years ago; this naturally makes one wonder what the delay in releasing it was. During this time, his music seems to have taken a darker path towards the myriad of melancholic influences he lists. 'Old Glory Blues' begins A Coat Worth Wearing with a more friendly sound, but it is the politically-inspired anger of 'Forlorn Hope' that really gets it underway. On initial thoughts, it blasts in quite heavily considering the more folky path McSweeney has taken in recent years (although his solo music can hardly be described as such, he has been collaborating extensively with some of the leading lights of the UK folk scene), but it makes a good contrast to this; especially as the beautifully dark 'Danse Macabre' plays through afterwards.
It is a nicely stripped-back album, in packaging if not in musical arrangement; judging from the sound so far, the silhouette of McSweeney on the front cover, holding an axe in a snowy forest as he gazes up at the sky, was an apt choice of artwork. One thing that I do fault it for is the lack of information in the booklet though. All of the songs are from McSweeney’s own pen, but it would be nice to know a little more about them beyond the lyrics and a brief sentence about 'Atlantis', the eerie fifth track. Incidentally, 'Land of Cockaigne', the track immediately preceding it, is the one McSweeney has been sharing on social media recently and thus the only one I had heard before.
'The Strangers of Maresfield Gardens' is the first song that I immediately fall in love with, however. It is musically interesting, and a dynamic arrangement that builds spectacularly to climax. Yes, that is Lucy Farrell’s musical saw you can hear throughout, which gives it a magically ominous sound, and the suddenness with which Sam Sweeney bursts into life on the drums halfway through the song is an absolutely great moment. 'Waving Not Drowning' is then the perfect song to follow it with a steady tempo and constant electric organ combination reminiscent of some good old 60s rock and roll (I’m specifically thinking vibes of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale here). 'Night Watchman' weaves around nicely, retaining McSweeney’s modern soft-spoken pop-rock vocal style whilst equally never quite going where one expects it to, before 'The Call' then brings the 9-track album to a close on a more lively, if not a more upbeat, one. The variation element is definitely brought in here, though a little more of it earlier would have been welcomed as well. Still, it makes for a spectacular closer especially with some interesting distortion effects.
Overall, A Coat Worth Wearing makes for a nice relaxing listen, in the sense that this certainly isn’t fun music to party to. It is instead music to sit down in your living room with a glass of port to, as I am currently doing, and really contemplate the songs with your full attention; every so often it is nice to find an artist like McSweeney who delivers on that. With his latest album, Neil McSweeney promises darkness in a way sure to pique your interest from the moment you pick your copy up, and it is a promise he delivers on well.