Starke Beauty

“This album is the light in a very dark 2020. There is a claustrophobic feeling in the air with the world in lockdown. As corny as it sounds, this album is the key to open everything up”

Dave Starke, looks solitary and, above all, he looks like a man with clear intent. A man in charge…a charged man. His previous album, Duende, startled me with its precision and deep beauty. To be honest, Shifting Boundaries tops it by miles. That is saying a helluva lot in a little words…something I am not normally good at. You listen to this guy and you can feel his confidence through his cool, relaxed delivery of his songs. Even on a lyrical level, this guy kicks most songwriter’s asses. The closest comparison I can think of is Roddy Frame on his album Surf and Ron Sexsmith in general. Ultimately though, Starke does his thing in a very specific way. You listen to this album, and images pop up in your head and all you do is smile. The lyrics are vivid and his phrasing is really impeccable. Starke also conjures the ghost of Leonard Cohen but in a very subtle, striking way. Starke definitely delivers his songs with the same reverence Cohen does.

This album is typified by absolute clarity. From the first note, you get the sense of self-assuredness. A man singing with his eyes closed, knowing that what is being performed is amazing.  The Prologue, is beautifully picked and creates the world the listener is about to enter. Track 2, “Burn After Reading”, is astounding.  I consider it to be one of the (three)pivotal tracks on this album. This alone is testimony that this man is not fucking around. This track is almost whispered, you feel the world cascading in your ear. Opening lines: “Come read my letters, conceal my words/I’ll make them better than anything you heard/All you have to do is burn them after reading.” Seemingly simple words, but very complicated sentiments. This is the mark of most of my favourite albums. Multiple layers that just keep piquing your interest with every listen. When I listen to this song, on an intertextual level, I think of the movie of the same name made by the Coen brothers. An interesting point of reference to say the least.

Track 3, “Come With Me”, with astounding harmonising by Lizzie Gaisford (from the fucking awesome Fishwives). I smiled  at the  nautical reference in the opening lines: “Leave your harbour and come with me. ” The song was written by Wayne Pauli, who clearly knows what he is doing. Starke delivers a chilling vocal on this track.

maybe I’ll buy liquor, maybe I’ll buy bread/the one that kills me quicker is the one that cools my head.

Track 4, “Pietermaritzburg” is a dialogue between a beggar and a passer-by. It is performed as a duet between Starke (who narrates the 67 year old beggar) and Tanya Nicolson (who narrates the passer-by). This is like an updated version of “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell. In McTell’s song the “old man” is being observed and described to the listener. “Streets of London” is a cautionary song basically carrying the message that other people are struggling more than you are. Starke’s song includes the “old man” as a narrator who does not beat around the bush. After asking the passer-by for “five bucks”, he states: “ maybe I’ll buy liquor, maybe I’ll buy bread/the one that kills me quicker is the one that cools my head.” This is social commentary without the preachiness. By making the song a duet, he represents both ends of the spectrum, the “haves” and the “have-nots”. On one level we are all connected but on another we live in the same place but in completely different worlds. “The distance that’s between has never felt so wide.” This is a miraculous song… Tanya Nicolson sings exceptionally on this track. Another point to raise here, is how well Dave Starke chose his collaborators. The exceptional musicians on this album should be commended.

.I walk down Longmarket, Wale Street and Bree/ I search for our tower/ the old you and me.

“Calling Out To You” is the most commercial sounding song on the album. Amazing strumming and harmonica (played by Starke) will definitely have a wide appeal. Track 6, “ A Week In The Cape”, another pivotal track on the album, is outstanding. This song recalls Leonard Cohen more than any other song. Musically it definitely (and maybe obviously) compares to Cohen’s “Talk This Waltz”, lyrically I would say it relates to “Stories of The Street.” These Comparisons aside, this is a typically fucking amazing Starke song with all the subtleties I love so much. On “A Week In The Cape” his lyrical prowess cannot be topped: “You are my weakness, my secrets you keep.” These lines are exquisitely composed in the context of the song. One assumes this secret is shared by the narrator of another unnamed person (and of course the streets). Starke gets specific in the following: “I walk down Longmarket, Wale Street and Bree/ I search for our tower/ the old you and me.” For some reason, I find these lines gut-wrenching. Perhaps because it is so beautifully and intensely sung or perhaps because those locations are very well known to me….I am not sure.  Ultimately the unnamed character in the song is intriguing. Another sign of great writing. This man really is exceptional at weaving tales. A beautiful keyboard passage appears at 2 minutes 34 seconds followed by more stunning lines: “I think of you sleeping/I think of you warm/I wrestle the darkness ‘till I’m ragged and torn.” This song reminds me of the movie ONCE which starred Glen Hansard.  In this movie the main character, played by Hansard,  pops into a  music shop with a girl and they perform a song together. She plays piano and he plays guitar. In Starke’s song this movie is definitely conjured up in the following lines: “Put on your armour/pick up your sword/I’ll find a guitar and I’ll sound out the chords.” This is the height of reverential beauty….naked holiness.  This song alone is evidence that Starke is a master writer. I still wish I knew who this song is about….

I am falling/I am broken/I am hungry/in my darkest hour you fed me.

Track 7, traditional Irish/ Scottish ballad “Wild Mountain Thyme” is impeccably performed by Starke and Richard Haslop (on Dobro). It’s definitely one of the best versions of this song that I have heard. Track 8, “Are You Ardent?”, is the third pivotal track (along with previously mentioned, “Burn After Reading” and “A Week in the Cape”). This has all the Starke hallmarks: great singing, great lyrics, great melodies and great harmonies. This song is haunted, it’s erotic and sensual. The interplay between lead and harmony vocals does recall Cohen but this is a Dave Starke song and it weaves magic. “Can you understand my selfish need for liberty?” is sung above the most beautiful instrumentation. This is intoxicating stuff. I am dying to know who he is addressing. As I wander through this music, I find more and more beauty. Another lyric catches my ear… this is not idle listening. This music demands complete attention. Starke really knows how to set the tone…who else could write: “And when I carry you/can it be whilst you carry me?” Simple…but complex…he knows how to nail a lyric. At the climax of this song Starke breathes: I am falling/I am broken/I am hungry/in my darkest hour you fed me.” He sounds exhausted… this is how you perform a song.

Track 9, “Ghost Train Through the Freestate” recalls “Ghost Riders in the Sky” particularly the version by the Highwaymen. It’s a fucking exhilarating trip through the Freestate. Once again its  social commentary without the sermonising.  Track 10, “You Never Let Me Down” is effortlessly performed. This just enforces Starke’s magic. Just when you think all the highlights have run dry, “Greenpeace” melodically floats in. It is wondrously written (by equally amazing Derek Leisegang) and is probably Starke’s best vocal performance. This record is consistent, beautiful and exceptionally well produced. The various musicians Brayden Hore (Bass); Devon Hore (Drums); Nish Pillay (Percussion); Tanya Nicholson (Voice); Ant Cawthorn-Blazeby (Violin); Lizzie Gaisford (Voice); Bheki Luthuli (Trumpet) and Richard Haslop (Dobro) deserve a mention for their stunning contribution to this magical album.

Words: Michael David Erfort – Instagram @myfavouritedarkhorse

The album is out on all streaming platforms and here