DEACON BLUE – CITY OF LOVE
Their first notes were shrouded in cloud, a collection of bittersweet songs on hurricane days in towns to be blamed, which grew to define a place and time. Now, over 30 years since their debut album Raintown, Deacon Blue return with a collection of silver linings.
City of Love sees the multi-million selling band deliver eleven brilliant new tracks tethered by a singular belief – that even in the corners of a town or a life where no light falls, hope can prevail. The new songs have gradually formed in the three years since their last album Believers, a response to the plight of the millions of souls forced to flee their homes in the desperate hope of finding peace in countries elsewhere.
That many have found sanctuary in Glasgow is only part of the inspiration behind City of Love, the new album’s lead single, a soaring soundscape on which surging strings and epic vocal performances from Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh peak with a skyburst crescendo.
“Lost the will for keeping on, just as the winter is dragging,” sings Ross. “What can I do with all of this? Where can I put what I’m carrying?” The answer is, in part, explained by the symbolic significance of ancient remains lying in the centre of Glasgow. “I’ve been intrigued by the story that the remains of St Valentine are in a church in the Gorbals,” says Ross.
“And I’ve always loved the idea of a set of love songs that are framed within the city, almost like Raintown. But what people maybe forget is that Raintown was a collection of quite distressed love songs, songs about things that had gone wrong. This album is quite a different thing.”
The keystone of the new record was set by a defining memory from Ross’s Dundee childhood, when he would listen from his bedroom, to his mother singing songs in the kitchen below. Of all these memories, it is the hymn Away Far Beyond Jordan, with its message of hope and sanctuary, which echoes most tellingly through the City of Love, a lifetime later.
“I wanted to celebrate the heart of a city which has been my home for many years with the possibility of love and kindness from those hymns, and the belief that the world can be a better place,” says the band’s frontman.
It’s the fourth release of a prolific seven-year period which has seen Deacon Blue deliver three albums and a Christmas EP, and return to touring extensively.
The band’s last three albums, recorded and produced at Chem 19 studios in Lanarkshire by Paul Savage (Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, Calvin Harris), returned them to the Top 20 of the UK album charts, the most recent posting at No 12, giving them their highest charting album in 23 years.
After a decade of sporadic gigs and compilation releases, the band’s 2012 return The Hipsters, was their first studio LP of entirely new songs since 2001’s Homesick. It was no nostalgia project. These were tunes on which a band rediscovered themselves, and whose fans followed. The album’s critical success fuelled a creative resurgence which returned them not only to mainstream radio playlists, but also venues like London’s Royal Albert Hall, Liverpool Echo Arena and Glasgow SSE Hydro, befitting the stature of a chart-topping legacy boasting seven million album sales, two number one albums and 14 hit singles.
The Hipsters was Ross’s love letter to the band he formed in 1985, a move which brought nine years of remarkable success before a temporary split in 1994. Reflections on nature, and the sea, land and city of Scotland were the key notes on 2014’s A New House, while the songs on Believers, their 2016 release, remain as relevant a response today to one of the world’s most desperate crises as they were when they were first released.
Recorded by Kevin Burleigh at Gorbals Sound in Glasgow, City of Love was produced by Ross and Deacon Blue guitarist Gregor Philp, and mixed at Chem 19 by Paul Savage. Ross acknowledges that the decision to self-produce is testament to the work Savage did in re-establishing their sound with his trilogy.
“When we made The Hipsters we hadn’t made a record for a long time and we needed someone to focus us,” he says. “Over the course of the records we made with Paul we found a new thing, almost Deacon Blue 2.0. We can get to that place more naturally now than I think we could before, maybe even more naturally than in the first iteration of Deacon Blue.”
Version 2.0, with Philp and bass player Lewis Gordon joining founder members Ross, McIntosh, drummer Dougie Vipond and keyboard player Jim Prime, has now released as many studio albums as the original line up featuring bassist Ewen Vernal and late guitarist Graeme Kelling.
Both were integral to the huge success of their first four albums, Raintown (1987), When The World Knows Your Name (1989), Fellow Hoodlums (1991), Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (1993), and the subsequent Our Town: Greatest Hits collection featuring singles Dignity, Chocolate Girl, Real Gone Kid, Fergus Sings The Blues, Twist and Shout and Your Town to name but a few.
Long-praised for their live performances, the band were determined to cut the new record live in the studio, with Andrew Wasylyk of the Hazey Janes (guitar), Conor Smith (pedal steel) and The Pumpkinseeds (strings) the hired hands. “Gregor and I had done so much work on the demos,” says Ross, “so we always wanted to do it live, and brought Andrew in so we could keep as much of that structure as we could.
“But the demos were base camp, and I knew there were peaks above that we could get to.” If the album’s title track is a sonic panorama, City of Love is, of course, also home to some of the finest examples of the band’s knack for articulating more intimate, close-focus sentiments.
For Lorraine McIntosh, In Our Room, a daydream about the early days of her relationship with Ross, her husband of 29 years, is among her favourites. “We spent the late night hours in our room,” Ross sings in the reverie. “Waiting on a sunrise, turning up the volume.”
Sharing a family home with the band’s principal songwriter offers McIntosh early access to the progress of songs, some of which become a public chronicle of aspects of their lives together.
“I’ve heard these songs start and grow over the past three years in the studio at home,” says Ross’s co-vocalist. “In Our Room is a song I loved from the beginning, the sound, the instrumentation. But there was something about the rhythm of the chorus which I thought needed to be really pared back. It was actually completely rewritten in the studio, and it’s one of my favourites on the album.
“That song is about memories and the times that we shared then. It’s about the circumstances we were in, falling love, being in our room, turning up Van Morrison on the stereo. It’s about falling in love, in a way I think people will really relate to.”
Over the course of both his Deacon Blue and solo career, Ross has delivered numerous songs inspired by each of his children. The couple’s daughter Georgia was the muse for Intervals, a gentle lullaby of reassurance.
“It’s a nice bi-product of the fact that he’s a songwriter and we’re married, Ricky chronicling things about our lives. I’m just glad someone’s writing it all down, because I’m not,” laughs McIntosh. “That song is about our daughter and obviously means a lot to me.
“But I think this album is about celebrating life for all its mess and complexity as we get older, when things become more valuable and the miracle of the everyday seems more real.”
The album closes with On Love, one of the most unconventional songs the band have ever recorded, on which Ross spools through fragments of fleeting reminiscences; a railway journey with his grandfather, a letter from the daughter of a girl he once knew, the pain of a lost love.
It’s carried on seven minutes of spoken word, and yet its joyful crescendo distils the very essence of Deacon Blue – two voices in signature harmony, and a life-affirming recognition of love’s great mystery. McIntosh considers the song a “beautiful masterpiece”. For Ross, it’s a bookend to the album’s opening title track.
“The point about it is that all these things happen, bits of life come along that you never planned, they just land on you,” he says. “You think you’re going in one direction, and then…”
Before the album’s launch, Deacon Blue will return to Australia and New Zealand, their first tour there in 30 years. Recent dates in Europe have also reaffirmed the affection felt for the songs and the band many years later, many miles away.
“Every time we go somewhere now it’s like a ticker tape parade, because you’re still there and your music has meant so much to people over that time,” Ross says. “The longer it goes on the more the music means, because it goes back longer and seeps deeper into people’s lives.
“I sometimes think Scottish people don’t always accept being loved very easily. But there’s a sense on this record of us celebrating that feeling of being valued, feeling well-loved wherever we go.
“That’s what the album is – it’s a collection of songs about love.”
REAL GONE KIDS
Ewen Vernal [bass]: played in Deacon Blue until the 1994 break-up and now plays with Capercaillie.
Graeme Kelling [guitar]: was a member of Deacon Blue until his death in 2004 from pancreatic cancer. There was a dedication to him on the album cover of The Hipsters. “He was the only one of us who was a true hipster,” Ricky says. “He was the cool guy with the Ray-Bans and the Katharine Hamnett jackets. He lived the life. Truly a day doesn’t pass without us thinking about him and very often talking about him and the stories that all come up.”