Andy White – How Things Are – album review

So, Andy White, Belfast-born musician and poet, has gone through a marriage break-up and people ask him “How are things, Andy?”. This album is the answer. Cataloguing the hurt, the confusion, the doubts and the sadness of an awful period in his life he has somehow conjured something that is uplifting at the same time as it plumbs the emotional depths. Fleetwood Mac produced the first high-profile rock album about mid-life break-ups and it has proved a rich vein of inspiration ever since. From Abba at one end of the pop-chart scale to Stephen Fearing at the other, many artists’ best work seems to spring from mid-life misery and someday someone will surely write a tome about this aspect of rock music in its maturity.

Canadian musician Stephen Fearing is a friend and occasional musical colleague of Andy White and Stephen’s most recent album explored the subject of his own marriage break-up – and subsequent fresh start with a new partner in a new place. How Things Are doesn’t take us as far as a fresh start although large parts of it do suggest that he’s come to terms with the end of what he – and his wife – thought was “the greatest story of love ever told”. Like a good funeral, these songs celebrate as much as mourn and much of the time it’s difficult to tell if you’re experiencing happiness tinged by sadness, or it’s inverse.

The music is wonderful. Just three players appear on this album: Domini Forster is a one-woman string section, Andy’s son Sebastian provides drums and percussion whilst Andy himself plays guitars, bass, ukulele, mandolin, keyboards…

Given the introspective subject matter and the small scale crew putting it together you might expect music that speaks of an intense, closed-off world. Not a bit of it, this is expansive music that reaches out to the world even in it’s most sad and tender moments. It’s the way songs are allowed to develop that is so beautiful and, at the moment, my favourite bit is the coda to Separation Street. Here the self-absorbed sadness of the main lyric morphs gently into something achingly poignant as there’s one last flickering hope, a repeated plea to “take me tonight” as he reels off what seems to be a list of shared memories. He knows it’s a vain effort to re-kindle the flame, but he’s got to make it. Beautiful, poetic music-making and remarkably life-enhancing somehow.

At the other end of the mood scale is the album opener, Driftin’, which sounds pretty much like Monster-era REM, an urgent, dark, electric guitar-driven beast of a track. There’s nothing else on the album nearly as heavy but, like all the other twists and turns in style across How Things Are, it seems to find its place in the scheme of things. As his mood shifts randomly in the tidal wave of emotions, so the songs jump around from the jaunty bounce of remembering love at first sight (You Got Me At Hello) to the sad and confused despair of realising it’s all over (Band of Gold – no, not the Freda Payne song!). I love it all: I love his honesty, his humour, his imagination, his music-making and (most of all) his poet’s way with words. To endure this deeply personal misery and then, from that, to give something so uplifting to the world is a great thing. He’s touring Britain right now, so go enjoy!

John Davy