“The Unconquerable Past” – Stephen Fearing

4 stars (out of 5)

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Stephen Fearing’s thirteenth solo album’s very personal and, at the same time it’s also political, but this isn’t just one for the social theorists because those elements are inextricably linked with the musical settings for the songs. Three of the songs on the album are named for people and there’s a strong vein of nostalgia running through the lyrical and musical stylings of “The Unconquerable Past”, although this isn’t by any means wallowing in the past; it’s much more of a realisation that there’s always a danger of dismissing older musical styles as no longer relevant in the headlong rush to be on-trend. It’s not a new thing, those wonderful old cynics Becker and Fagen nailed it in their own beautifully sleazy way in “Hey Nineteen” in 1980: ‘Hey, nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin, she don’t remember the Queen of Soul’.

To come back to Stephen Fearing, this album is a bit of a departure from his solo material in that, at times, there’s a full rock band behind some uptempo tunes, one of which, “Christine”, goes way back to classic rockabilly styling and it’s a lot of fun. The other notably uptempo song, “Stay with Me” has its roots firmly in drivetime rock that Bob Seger seemed to knock out for fun in the late seventies.

If there’s one theme above all others pulling the album together it’s empathy, particularly where people with differences are dealing with harsh and unforgiving society we live in today. “Sunny” is a great example as the story is gradually revealed of a transgender individual leaving home to eventually find a relationship that works. The writer isn’t judging, and preaches the same tolerance in “Someone Else’s Shoes”; we should always try to understand the pressures someone else is facing rather than rushing to condemn.

Personal highlights are the poignant “Emigrant Song”, co-written with Andy White, dealing with the conflicting tensions of moving and looking back at happy memories, and the title song, with the message that we are products of our past but we don’t have to be defined by it. The album closes out with “No Country”, a solo acoustic ballad that positions the troubadour as a citizen of nowhere at all.

“The Unconquerable Past” is a collection of ten high-calibre songs performed with quality and taste that will make you tap your feet and make you stop and think. Not a bad combination.

“The Unconquerable Past” is out in the UK now in various physical and digital formats of Fish Records (FRCD03).