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Raphael Doyle: Closer



Most albums get compared with other albums or bands; this one is a book, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. That’s the story of his life in Auschwitz and its first chapter describes how his (and by extension) the reader’s humanity can be completely taken away if someone’s a big enough bastard. It’s a harrowing read; the rest of the book is comparative plain sailing as it tells how the human spirit adjusts and makes the outrageous normal.

Similarly, Never Closer opens with a stunning track that’s spoken word/poem, I Come From Ireland, that leaves the rest of the album nowhere to go but down (or up).

As a teenager, Doyle left County Antrim for England and met a lad called Tom Robinson (yes, that one). They bonded over a love of Dylan and blues, and formed a band. They met Alexis Korner, who became their unofficial mentor, and in 1973 their band, Café Society had a debut album produced by Ray Davies. Doyle’s career soon foundered; stage fright led him to drink, and he worked as a jobbing musician and teacher, his family his anchor.

Last year he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and was persuaded by Robinson and his son Louis to record this definitive album as his legacy.

The opener, I Come From Ireland is an eight-minute poetic account of his life and it’s powerful stuff.

It opens with his early years, set in the troubles: “I come from Ireland/Calm and lovely/Unsteady and unsettled/Paisley’s boys had drawn the line/Bernie Devlin was still in plaits”.

He writes how he “never learned to walk or build” but (we guess) turned to petty crime, the paramilitaries and just your basic materialism, “until the threadbare whole coat fell off in tatters and the world had moved on.”

His sister Pauline “her presence as familiar as the hedge-rows” died with her head in the oven after he refused to help her.

“God will not let that pass,” says the dying man, ominously.

Later he moved to England and met Uncle Ray (“the puppet master”) who led him astray though he adds: “It is what it is, nobody’s fault but mine.”

Now his peers “are checking their pension pots … mine is a bad joke”. Not surprising, as his drinking is described as “a line of Guinness pints spread across the table and snaked out into the future.”

He meets his wife, a beacon of hope, then children: “Amazing, unexpected, my best and truest friends” but he cannot look at the pain he caused as the children, “my cracked bowl filled with healing grace.”

The poem ends with: “I will step out into an approaching night. Gladly.”

It’s powerful, backed in places by drone and pipes, and may leave you speechless.

The rest of the albums, it’s just songs. Good ones, admittedly. Doyle’s stage fright deprived the world of a major talent. He writes electric/acoustic folk tunes that are sometimes so understated they almost stop. The Shape I’m In has what could the world’s first subliminal guitar solo.

The intimate We’ll All Get Together Again is a celebration of family life. Other songs, such as Kiltermon and the atmospheric Kerry, are songs dedicated to places. Tom Robinson himself features on the slightly psychedelic Frankie.

It closes with Live The Game, a bluesy stomper and the short Coda, a final word for his family: “You are the fire in my life/You are the flame that keeps me warm.”

It would be good in its own right. But with the added backstory and that opening song — worth the price of admission on its own — it’s something of a minor masterpiece.

Get Closer:

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