A new Alex McMurray album is a call for celebration. Not a huge, Mardi Gras-like celebration, because songwriters’ albums no longer define the zeitgeist as they once did. But definitely a more private, birthday party-like celebration, because great songwriting is a way to self-knowledge and ultimately satisfaction for those who have the patience to listen carefully. Once upon a time John Sebastian could upend the world as we knew it with a seven-inch 45 rpm disc that asked the question, “Do You Believe in Magic?” With a strum of his autoharp and the incantation “The magic’s in the music and the music’s in me,” Sebastian articulated a world view that could—that did—move mountains.
McMurray can do this today with songs that are just as good but whose reach is smaller because you have to believe in the magic before you hear them. That doesn’t matter to those who find in McMurray’s work a portal to Neverland, where the mountains may be closer to the elevation on Monkey Hill, but the songs can still inspire individuals to appreciate the rich fantasy world of their inner lives. McMurray makes myth out of the commonplace, the modern equivalent of spinning straw into gold, and his stories tell us so much about what it means to live in New Orleans. He can make a bleak landscape sparkle with silver linings. If there is a songwriter who could write a song about the Saints suffering multiple heartbreaking losses without losing their joy in taking the field, McMurray is the man for the job. There is no base scenario wherein McMurray cannot find some kind of ecstasy, as he does here on the fabulous “Everybody Goes To Hank’s,” an ode to an all-night market that is frequented by the merry dregs of New Orleans life, an endangered species on the fast-disappearing landscape of a gentrifying St. Claude Avenue. He is, of course, no stranger to this phenomenon, having hosted one of the best portals to Neverland ever located in New Orleans, just over the tracks from Hank’s at the Truck Farm, where he hosted Chaz Fest for a few years following Katrina. You want pirates? Indians? Shaggy dogs and singing frogs? Chaz Fest had ’em, and though you would be hard-pressed to see that in today’s landscape, you can still imagine it when you hear McMurray sing songs like “Rag Days” or “I’ll Be Damned.”
McMurray’s songs are not two dimensional. He spins elaborate tales with a playwright’s talent for small touches, like the story of “Winona” who works at Family Dollar, or the complex fables “Something You Know” and “Blue Room.” It’s been rewarding to follow the trajectory of his songwriting as he goes through life and absorbs the changes around him. Becoming a father a few years back has definitely given him new perspective, which emerges here on “Dear Old Daddy,” a humorous song addressed to his son that allows McMurray to reflect on his own life: “And when I think about my younger days / running wild with my childish ways / I’m glad you never met the younger me / I wasn’t always nice as I could be.”
At the end of the day McMurray is sustained by the enduring bonds of love and friendship. Some of his best songs touch on this theme and the title track here is a worthy addition to the canon. Fittingly he is joined by close musical friends on the album—regular band members Carlo Nuccio on drums; Joe Cabral on bass, tenor saxophone and vocals; and Glenn Hartman on keyboards— as well as Washboard Chaz from McMurray’s other band, the Tin Men; the magnificent voices of Susan Cowsill and Alexis Marceaux; and several special guests including Will Sexton on guitar, Charlie Halloran on trombone, Ivan Neville on organ and clavinet and Mike Dillon on percussion. This wonderful crew brings us all inside the special magic of McMurray’s vision. For those of us who believe, we can truly count ourselves the lucky ones.