You can’t deny that the last couple of years have been difficult times for musicians, but the creative impulse won’t be stifled. Artists will take the clay that’s available and use it to fashion their creations. The Trump years spawned many memorable albums, then musicians found different ways of working through a pandemic with very little personal interaction to help the process. Steve Dawson’s raw material for “At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” came from a different place. Following a family tragedy, he took an extended sabbatical to decide whether he wanted to continue writing and performing. A songwriting retreat with Richard Thompson and Patty Griffin gave him the answer he needed and he found his clay (mainly) in his own personal experiences.

The album’s quite unusual in that it’s almost entirely the work of Steve Dawson; there are no co-writes or covers and only three other musicians make cameo appearances. Apart from Alton Smith’s piano on a couple of songs, Michael Miles’ banjo on “The Spaces In Between” and a Diane Christiansen vocal on “We Are Walking in a Forest”, every hook, lick and vocal is Steve Dawson. Quite apart from the instrumental versatility, showcases Steve’s vocal range from the easy, languid tenor into high falsetto. Steve’s voice evokes the classic American west coast country rock bands, sounding at times like Don Henley or Randy Meisner and there’s the occasional nod in the direction of Jackson Browne as the album pulls off the trick of sounding vaguely familiar while constantly introducing new ideas and sounds.

The settings for the songs are pretty laid-back, with nods towards sixties/seventies soul in “This Is All There Is”, psychedelia in “Beautiful Mathematics”, Crazy Horse in the title track and Jackson Browne on “Hard Time Friend”, which has a breakdown and restart two-thirds of the way through that feels a lot like the last section of JB’s “The Late Show” (one of Springsteen’s favourite recorded moments). The musical settings are incredibly varied, with some interesting keyboard instruments appearing (mellotron and dulcimer for a start), creating the perfect ambience for each of the songs.

The album could easily have been a fairly depressing experience, with songs about COVID deaths and forced positivity (“This Is All There Is”), dysfunctional families (“She Knew”) and the limitations of the forgiving gesture (“Forgiveness is Nothing Like I thought it Would Be”), but Steve leavens the mixture with the resoundingly upbeat “22 Rubber Bands”, a song about his love for his daughter, and “Hard Time Friend”, dedicated to his friend Diane Christiansen, celebrating the friends who are with us through times that are good or bad, happy or sad. There are two bonus CD and download songs which didn’t make the vinyl cut for reasons that have nothing to do with quality; “You’re Trying Too Hard”, which nails fake authenticity, and “However Long it Takes”, a reminder that we can always choose to see the good things in the world rather than the negativity which so often surrounds us.

Twelve tracks, fourteen if you buy the CD or download, and each one with an interesting arrangement and lyrics conveying ideas that are important to Steve Dawson, as they should be to all of us. It’s ironic to think that this bunch of songs were created by someone who had started to doubt his creative abilities.

“At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” is released on Pravda Records (PR6419) on Friday July 16th.

Here’s the animated video for “22 Rubber Bands”: