Album: Legionnaire

Review by: Chris Dolan  - Poet, author and playwright, Glasgow.


Legionnaire is the debut album of  Lancashire acoustic singer songwriter, David Metcalfe.

In The Girl from the Red River Shore, a lesser-known song by Bob Dylan, but a masterpiece, a tale of unrequited love is consummated by a meeting with the Divine. Dave Metcalfe pulls off the same climax by a very different route in Legionnaire, the title track.

It’s hard not to make the connection immediately between Dylan and Metcalfe. He is clearly deeply influenced on every level not only by Dylan himself but by that same mix of blues, Scots Irish balladry, and storytelling that inspired Dylan. Which is not to suggest that Metcalfe is merely a Dylan imitator. (And anyway the accusation has been flung at singer-songwriters as disparate as Donovan, Springsteen, John Prine...) Metcalfe comes from a very different place, and not simply geographically. There’s a spiritual well more in tune with Yeats or Patrick Kavanagh than Dylan’s collision of fundamentalist evangelism and Blakean mysticism. Passion forged in the fires of reality, hammered out in the school of hard knocks. And, despite the Guthrie guitar style and blues-inflected harmonica, Metcalfe’s stories and tunes are deeply rooted in British soil.


Legionnaire brings together two confessions – the captain’s and the chaplain’s. We’re led put onto the battlefield by the sound of a distant bugle – Metcalfe throughout the album colours his palette with deft little grace notes such as this. The narrative style owes as much to Al Stewart as it does to Dylan: two men’s souls laid bare, yet there’s still something of the romance of old wars, lost loves and a clinging to hope. The song’s mercenary is the Universal Soldier: From Mexico to Fez and Casablanca, I have played the Captain’s part / But I’ve let the sun go down upon my anger, and upon this broken heart. Metcalfe almost whispers the tale, giving an intimate feel to the confessions – like we are witnesses to the breaking of confidence.

Holy Wars, the opening track, is musically as lyrical but blunter, angrier. Metcalfe states his case directly: A son of mine deceived, conditioned to believe, he was born to strike the Infidel. He paraphrases the anti-war slogan, Not in my Name. These are songs of the here and now; protest songs, yes, but more in tune with the humane melancholy of Chimes of Freedom than the declamatory sloganeering of Masters of War. The individual alone with his conscience, trying to make cosmic sense of the chaos that surrounds him.


By the third track, Angelus Bell, Metcalfe’s particular terrain and obsessions become ever clearer: how to reconcile a deep-seated faith in a world where no God, or at least no benign God, is immediately apparent. Metcalfe’s tender, delicate guitar intro quotes Sweet Star of the Sea. This isn’t just any faith but a particular brand of second generation imported Irish Catholicism. Partly what makes Metcalfe’s style his own is a Celtic tinge in the harmonies and rhythms of his songs. There’s Gerry Rafferty in there, Andy White in the talking blues, but it’s a mix that’s refreshingly personal and honest.

There are two lighter pieces in the middle of the album, all very much part of the modern folk idiom. On record they’re perhaps a little too whimsical and personal, the frames of reference too limiting - Lourdes, Alton Towers, Ewood Park etc. In Good Friday Blues he launches into an impressive, Bob Dylan comedy act for the story of a guilt-ridden altar boy’s conflict between The Roman Catholic Church and his beloved Blackburn Rovers. These numbers would be a lot of fun to hear in a pub setting or amongst friends, but they necessarily lack the ambition of the bigger, more serious songs.  


Somewhere between those two extremes, lies You Wed Somebody, a clever little folk-rock piece about a loveless marriage. If talents like Dave Metcalfe’s were given the promotion they deserve, this would be the single off the album (perhaps re-recorded with a better drum arrangement that slightly lets this version down).

Lyrically, it’s a pitch-perfect mini-meditation on compromise and infidelity, themes that are laced throughout the collection. Before the final track (in which Metcalfe sounds like the musical offspring of his beloved Dylan and Christy Moore – artistically, not bad parents to have) are two beautifully executed big, bold songs, Two Guardian Angels and The Hanging Tree. The melodies and arrangements might be more in the American folk tradition but the moral universe they convey had me thinking more of Leonard Cohen than anyone else.


There are all these elements and echoes in these songs  – as there are in any good contemporary songwriting; Bob himself has made a whole career out of reinventing earlier material – but the final product is all Dave Metcalfe’s. A particular sound and a particular sensibility, the universal being in the local. It’s an immensely satisfying cd that, on each hearing, reveals something new, not least in the skilful arrangements. Metcalfe has an extraordinarily good ear for a tune and a story. But it’s finally in the performance – by turns wry, intimate, and hurting – that binds the whole together.