So Will Varley returns, not that he’s actually been away much. The Xtra Mile roster is packed with artists whose DNA is loaded with the ethos of making it big through bloody mindedness and oodles of hard work and unbelievably, Spirit of Minnie is already Varley’s fifth album. However, the most famous resident of Deal after Charles Hawtrey has opted to hire in a band, widen his musical palet and make a break for the promised land whilst he still has a bushy beard.
Varley has followed the well-trodden folk path thus far, incorporating a sense of righteous social injustice with humour and no little pathos; history has proved this a finger-lickin’ combo on a par with anything offered up by the Colonel (Sanders, not Parker). His lyricism and edgy personality are what has won him an ever-expanding brigade of facially hirsute admirers yet the addition of some strings and proper backing appears to have smoothed out any potential rough edges and left us with…well…I’m not entirely sure.
“But we’ve been here before” observes Varley on arguably the most accessible, if saccharine, track ‘Screenplay’ which ought to be the soundbed for a 101 rom-coms this Valentine’s Day. He’s right, we have been here before, faux Americana with a British accent finely machine-tooled is nothing new but to Varley it is and although the track benefits from some lilting strings there is a sense that this really isn’t a natural fit for him. Too often there is a lack of drama, too little indignation and simply not enough tub-thumping fun on show which, let’s be honest, is what we all want from an Xtra Mile artist.
There is a moment of horror during the ‘The Postman’ as Varley gushes “You were the Postman…” to which I hold my breath, convinced he was going to add “and I was the letter box” but thankfully he avoids that particular cul-de-sac and, underpinned by a whining pedal steel guitar, the track is allowed to rise to a crescendo with, I assume, will make a euphoric end to his live set. It’s the highlight on an album devoid of gems.
On previous albums, the stripped back nature of ‘Breaking The Bread’ would comfortably jostle with its fellow stripped-back accomplices but on Spirit of Minnie it stands out like a leper at…actually where do lepers stand out? At an airport? A wedding? Anyway, too often Varley strives for perfection at the expense of originality and whilst his lyrics remain personally honest, they creep into the hinterland of melancholia rather than setting his crosshairs on the usual suspects of social injustice and emotional resignation; which is his standard USP. He has become a Stephen Fretwell without the quirkiness, Jonny Flynn without the wit and a Damien Rice without the ability to be a lyrical arsonist. In other words, he sounds almost happy to hog the middle lane on his musical motorway.
Spirit of Minnie is far from a missed step, it’s the sound of a man looking to experiment, develop and incorporate new bows within his quiver. That he hasn’t just churned out yet another Will Varley album is to his credit but unfortunately, another Will Varley album is what we all really want. Without it he may find himself a short hop away from buying a semi by the sea and turning into James Blunt and none of us would wish that upon him.
Spirit of Minnie is released on 9th February on Xtra Mile Recordings