Michael McDermott Paints Poignant Character Sketches With Insightful Wordplay Via ‘St. Paul’s Boulevard’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Chicago-based Michael McDermott’s vocals and songwriting style easily invite comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. That’s not bad for starters. His wordplay lets you know he’s listened to his share of Dylan and The Boss but continues to carve out his own respectable place among terrific songwriters and roots rockers. Sometimes, even for a writer like McDermott, good songs need to incubate for a period of time, and St. Paul’s Boulevard, a fictional place that metaphorically could be (to use another song title from another writer) the proverbial corner of heartbreak and pain. It’s the source of these songs and a place that McDermott once inhabited. 

In that sense, this is a concept album, but it is relatable because most of us have these kinds of places in our past – situations where we struggled, found and lost love, or stumbled into unforgiving circumstances. McDermott’s records tend to be not only personal but cathartic. His 2019 Orphans came after the loss of his parents and spending enormous amounts of time on the road, much of it alone.

Several tunes are about breaking free from trapped situations. Take the chugging ballad “Sick of This Town,” an ode to escape with lyrics such as – “You see my mom and dad are buried here/I go and visit them once a year/Feels like my futures in the rearview mirror/Man I’m so outta here”  Similar sentiments mark the surging singalong single “Pack the Car,” the universal urge many of us had to just hit the road, having suffered through pandemic isolation. It’s almost anthemic in its chorus – “Come on, come on, come on home.”  He paints a grim, gritty picture of Chicago in “The Outer Drive,” expressing the need to free themselves from the desperate characters who have succumbed to the city’s vices, temptations, and shady aspects. His simple poetic lines are often brilliant imagery as in the opening two lines – “The storm’s kicking up on the lake…/The lavender lights of The Drake.” 

He’s a survivor passing on advice in the opening “When The Light Gets In,” suggesting that we remember that light breaks through in the darkest of times or where the wound is. “Our Little Secret” taps into lust from a road warrior’s perspective, citing locales from Barcelona to Wisconsin to Philly and to California. On the other hand, “The Arsonist” is a graceful nod to the woman who saved him from his excessive reckless ways. “New Year’s Day” is a brooding expose on how relationships drift into separate directions and acknowledging the need as stated in the infectious chorus of “Start it all over again.”  “Meet Me Halfway” taps into similar sensibilities with another indelible chorus.

Life on the fringes takes on a Springsteen-like “Jungle Land” vibe in the back-to-back “All That We Have Lost” and “Dead By Dawn” and yes, the amps are sufficiently cranked up too.  The title track plays out much as McDermott’s quote at the end of this second paragraph. Consider “St. Paul’s Boulevard” and the song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” as adjacent metaphorical places. The ending verse is Dylan-like in a “Desolation Row” kind of way – “Won’t you please send back my regrets/To all the lost souls stranded/Down on St. Paul’s Boulevard.”  As the album winds down, it’s clear that McDermott is beyond that place. “Peace, Love, and Brilliant Colors” speaks to resilience and redemption while the Kimbrough mandolin imbued “Paris” is an invitation to a romantic getaway.

McDermott finds sustenance in these songs. You will too. In a year of terrific songwriter albums – Terry Klein, Jefferson Ross, Caroline Spence, and recently Lyle Lovett – McDermott is in the same conversation if not leading it with this superb effort.

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