Written by: David Porter
Whatever happened to Michael McDermott?
He came roaring out of Chicago in 1990-1991, all of 20 years old, with his debut album, 620 W. Surf, a folk-rock record that sounded as if it belonged in rotation with the Levellers, the Alarm’s Declaration, October, and perhaps the Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. It was urgent, spiritual music, and while the single, “A Wall I Must Climb” charted on the Billboard Hot 100, McDermott found himself adrift in an era of grunge, jam bands and Achtung Baby, and 620 W. Surf never found its footing on college or classic rock radio. Still, a Christian soldier in the vein of Bono, Mike Scott and Springsteen, McDermott marched on.
“Throughout the years I had continued to feel like I was on a mission of sorts singing spiritual songs but never really feeling good about the other elements of my life,” McDermott said in a press release. “I had become self-consumed, alcoholic and a drug addict.” In 2004 McDermott was arrested for possession of cocaine while on his way into the Chicago House of Blues, and later that evening he found himself locked up in the Cook County Jail, in the very cell where his father had been held on a gun charge a few years prior. “It felt like I had found my bottom, like I had dug my hole as deep as it could go.”
Noise From Words is McDermott’s first album since 2004. It’s a sober, adult affair, and in keeping with McDermott’s oeuvre, it’s an earnest, passionate and sincere effort. McDermott has crafted a lovely album of modern classic rock, one not so much about outrunning your demons as it is about offering them the adjacent barstool. The album’s first song, the beautiful “Mess of Things,” would sound at home anywhere on Willie Nile’s recent milestone, Streets of New York. “Mess of Things” and the following song, “Still Ain’t Over You Yet,” are stories of troubled relationships that navigate the same thematic landscapes Aimee Mann crafted with such vividness on Lost in Space and The Forgotten Arm, with plenty of drink and self-destructive behavior, as if they were written for the soundtrack to the next film inspired by a Bukowski story: “LA woman, hey what are we gonna do/I’m tired of drinking and tired of thinking bout you…I don’t even think Jesus knows the piss poor shape that I’m in.”
In “Mess of Things,” McDermott sings over a spare arrangement, “the trouble with trouble is that it sometimes sticks/plays tricks with your mind while it gets its kicks/And slowly there’s a momentum shift/And the weight becomes too great to lift.” The lyric, one of the album’s finest, recalls one of the more famous moments in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.” Noise From Words is about life after bankruptcy. On “Tread Lightly,” McDermott sings, “…your innocence it ain’t coming back.” Like Springsteen’s “Drive All Night” and “Stolen Car,” X’s “The Have Nots,” or anything from Matthew Ryan’s superb debut album, May Day, these songs are Hopper paintings, eulogies, what happened after we pulled out of here, but didn’t win.
Noise From Words’ fourth song and first single, “The American in Me,” is about the loss of national innocence: “Sometimes I fight little dirty wars/It’s the American in me…What’s liberty? the history books are stained/Sometimes I’m proud, Sometimes I’m so ashamed/Of the American in me/Don’t mistake dissent for disloyalty…” In this hideous epoch, shame is patriotic, and “The American in Me” subverts the hateful jingoism to which the scoundrels cling. God bless McDermott for having the courage to record it and release it as a single.
McDermott’s beautiful losers, much like Springsteen’s, Aimee Mann’s and Mike Ness’s, are the people left in the city as it crumbles. When McDermott sings, “From the mountains to the rooftops/The muskets are all smokin’/So say a prayer tonight, for the broken,” on “Broken,” he’s singing on the jukebox at the back of a dive bar, from the window of an apartment in the part of the city that hasn’t gentrified and may never. In “A Long Way From Heaven,” McDermott sings, “It’s a city of ghosts where no one trusts/it’s a city of wings that turn to rust/I’m turning and I still can’t find/These things I need to leave behind/Yeah we’re a long, long, long way from heaven.” These are dark, sad times, and Noise From Words is a fitting album for the autumn of 2007, resigned, elegiac and haunted. “Wings that turn to rust” references “Thunder Road,” but Noise From Words is McDermott’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, rather than his Born to Run.
McDermott works in the interstice between Springsteen and John Mellencamp, but on Noise From Words he also reaches back to the melodicism and urgency of Don McLean and to Dylan, particularly Blood on the Tracks. Dylan’s shadow flickers beneath many of the streetlights and across the neon puddles on the sidewalks of the city that serves as the set for Noise From Words. On “All My Love,” which sounds like Ron Sexsmith, McDermott steps toward that shadow and embraces it: “Lay down the phone and put on Highway 61.” During “I Shall Be Healed,” the piano-driven ballad that closes the album and a reference to “I Shall Be Released,” McDermott sings to a wayward lover, “you loved to keep on keepin’ on.”
Leaning back into Springsteen again, “My Fathers Son” is McDermott’s attempt to tell the story of his arrest and pay tribute to his father. While reminiscent of “Factory” From Darkness on the Edge of Town and “Walk Like A Man” from Tunnel of Love, the storytelling is awkward and some of the lines are clichéd, rather than just simple and earnest. With McDermott though, this is always forgivable because he always means it.
McDermott’s voice has aged, and on Noise From Words he sounds a bit like Darden Smith with some Willie Nile at the edges – it’s generous, gritty and warm, and it’s the most salient and affecting instrument on the album. The production throughout Noise From Words builds more gloss and grandeur than perhaps it should – this is a record about regret, and the most effective arrangements are those that push McDermott’s voice and its weary, empathetic ache to the fore over acoustic guitar.
“I Shall Be Healed” is propelled by a piano refrain lifted from “Jungleland” and bolstered by strings. It’s a simple, stirring paean to love’s ability to heal, McDermott’s gospel closer. McDermott sings about a world where “everybody is bleeding, or everybody is filled with doubt,” and he tells his wayward lover, singing his own background vocals at the chorus, “say the word/And I shall be healed.” The piano notes are bright, a bit of sunlight after a dark ride. Like everything else on Noise From Words, it’s a campfire song. It will give you comfort.
Don’t mistake dissent for disloyalty. And don’t call it a comeback.