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Hubris Records HUB008

Entirely in keeping with the work of a master singer-songwriter, the very title of this latest offering from Steve proves to be multi-layered within its carefully chosen phrase. For there’s always truth to tell, and Steve invariably tells the truth in his musical and lyrical utterances: telling it like it is.

As ever with Steve, presentation is refreshingly straight-down-the-line, delivering without recourse to gimmickry a further brand new clutch of songs which, while bearing all the usual identifiable Tilston hallmarks, are not in any way predictable. As you might expect from an artist still at the peak of his powers, the predominant element is reflection; Steve’s always got plenty to reflect on, but he also possesses the rare gift of being able to do so honestly and directly, without introspective exclusivity or unwelcome sentimentality. The concept is given an added twist on this occasion with reference to the road not travelled, now being viewed in the light of the recent discovery of a letter written to Steve in 1972 by John Lennon, sent c/o Zigzag magazine (which partly explains why he never received it at the time), and the story being subsequently retold in the latest Al Pacino movie Danny Collins. John wrote: “Being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think,” and these words of wisdom will surely have enabled Steve to survive into his fourth decade of songwriting unscathed and strong (it may sound an extravagant claim, but to many ears, Steve’s impressive accumulated body of work is now even beginning to eclipse that of Lennon).

The global, recurring Tilston theme of the past informing the present pervades this new collection, starting out convivially on familiar territory with the autobiographical strand of writing. In a way, Truth To Tell’s opening track Grass Days recalls the feel of The Road When I Was Young (on Steve’s earlier album Ziggurat), as it ushers in, on bustling, breezy rhythms, Steve’s personal evocation of the heady and carefree way in which, as a young and innocent fledgling singer-songwriter, he soaked up the experience of Soho in 1970. The travelling musician is further celebrated on the catchy All Around This World. Both of those songs overlap the autobiographical theme with the depiction of the spirit of place, another of Steve’s perennial strengths, and a deep interest in history, which furnishes a connection with the slightly morose Bygone Lands, where Steve ponders on the fates of past civilisations not envisaged by their inhabitants. The fate of mankind itself is tellingly re-examined in the light of contemporary insights (Running Out Of Road), and The Riverman Has Gone is a cleverly twisted commentary on senseless cutbacks in the economy. Cup And Lip cannily observes how the seemingly beneficial developments of science and reason have in the hands of the wrong people proved as restrictive and unproductive, and damaging, as the religion they replaced.

Ways Of A Man, with its overtones of Nick Drake and John Martyn, gives hope for new beginnings, while The Way It Was is an affectionate and moving tribute to one particularly talented musician friend, the sadly departed Stuart Gordon (who had only recently performed with Steve in his trio line-up). Regret at departure forms the backbone for the lusciously scored Yo Me Voy, and the trials of romance are explored on Lasting Love and Pick Up Your Heart (the latter featuring piano backing from guest Belinda O’Hooley). As indeed applies to Died For Love, the album’s lone traditional song, which, while it may not achieve the stature of Steve’s timeless original takes on The Constant Lovers and Fisher Lad Of Whitby, is still an interesting exercise in bringing a major key setting to what essentially has always been a minor-key song. Finally, the disc’s instrumental interlude Pecket’s Well, in addition to being a natural showcase for Steve’s utterly magnificent guitar playing, contains more than a hint of tsetse flies bothering Anji as they shuffle across the tumbling waters of that close-to-home location.

And need I say, it’s always a cause for rejoicing that Steve’s guitaristic excellence is ubiquitous, only very occasionally taking a rest within the well-sculpted soundscape conjured for Steve by his extraordinarily simpatico collaborative producer, multi-instrumentalist David Crickmore (of the mighty Durbervilles), who proves himself once again to be Steve’s ideal travelling companion. While fully in tune with Steve’s personal vision, David treats Steve with all due respect as the musician’s musician who’s in total command of his own talent, granting him a superbly engineered balance with a clear focus on Steve’s exemplary diction and brilliantly literate lyrics. A word of praise too for Hugh Bradley’s creative bass lines which provide a subtle foil for the rich acoustic textures of Steve’s own arrangements.

Yes, Truth To Tell is another assured and eminently classy entry in the Tilston canon; and all the while there remain truths to tell, Steve remains my choice for the songwriter to tell them.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 110 of The Living Tradition magazine.