Are You Listening?
Over the course of his 25-year career, Peter Mulvey has logged more than a million miles on the road and performed somewhere around 4,000 concerts. He’s the quintessential troubadour. Are You Listening?, his seventeenth album, was released on March 24 by Righteous Babe Records. Produced by his friend and fellow gutsy song-slinger Ani Difranco, Are You Listening? showcases both Mulvey’s penchant for quickly cutting to the core and his ability to mix the personal, the political, and the poetic. According to the Righteous Babe website, “Mulvey sets the ordinary and the profound side by side.” That’s about right.
In general, the music on the album is rootsy and folk-inspired, but it’s not easily labeled. Jazz and spoken word, for example, find their way in, which isn’t surprising if you’re familiar with Mulvey or Difranco. “Winter Poem” is just a straight-up poetry track, but it fits the overall context. “The Details,” one of the best songs on the album, offers both a jazzy propulsion and a low, percussive guitar opening that is reminiscent of Difranco. (The detuned guitar that announces the song cannot help but remind you of Difranco’s “Dilate” or even “Sorry I Am.”) Other songs are casual, conversational. While listening, you can imagine Mulvey holding court in a pub or chatting up an audience from a village gazebo. “The Other Morning Over Coffee,” another highlight, feels like a parting letter read aloud with guitar accompaniment, but its verbal energy is punctuated by humming and harmonizing with Anna Tivel, whose voice adds another dimension to the album. The title song is simple and sparse, but it is effective and haunting – the first half provides a trancelike guitar and vocals, the second half a beautiful conclusion. The repetitions and patterns that Mulvey builds pay off. Tivel’s harmonies and her violin complement Mulvey’s voice and delivery, offering up a sort of tenderness, as Mulvey calls it. That tenderness works its way into nearly all the tracks, but it hits its mark in “Oh the Rain,” “The Other Morning Over Coffee,” and “Are You Listening?”
Mulvey, who’s known by some for “Take Down Your Flag,” which he wrote in the Calvin Theater in Northampton after the church shooting in Charleston (June 2015), is no stranger to protest songs. He often wears his heart and his politics on his sleeve. The songs on this album are not as overtly political, but they are as compelling. While raising funds for Are You Listening? on Kickstarter, Mulvey wrote, “I have been launching little paper boats of whatever art, wit, beauty and tenderness I can muster onto the waters of this life for a long time, and I work to keep the faith that they make a difference.” But Mulvey may not be for everyone. His lyrics are sometimes too direct or too on-the-nose, and he can get caught chasing word clouds such as the use of “crazy, chaotic, killjoy” in “The Other Morning Over Coffee.” But sometimes the lyrics, which seem simple on their face, can soar and speak to “the big sad empty inside.” That’s what his audience loves, and he’s damn good at it. Are You Listening? is worth a listen.