Don't be misled — the rugged, timeworn quality of the vocal at the center of this song from Michael Chapman's latest album, 50, has nothing to do with the fact that the veteran British troubadour is 75 years old; he already sounded like that when he was in his 20s.
Even at the start of his career, it was apparent that Chapman was an old soul. And the distance he's traveled over the decades is reflected in 50, which commemorates his half-century as a working musician. Like his folk-rock contemporaries Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson, Chapman was always as gifted a guitarist as a singer-songwriter. But while his work was as worthy as that of his aforementioned peers, he didn't achieve the same degree of renown.
However, reissues in recent years have led to a bit of a renaissance for Chapman, who has never stopped performing and recording. On 50, he's joined by stylistic descendants like Steve Gunn, as well as old folk-scene friends like Bridget St. John, as he unpacks some previously unheard tunes and offers up new versions of old songs.
The mesmeric "That Time of Night" is among the latter group, having last been heard on Chapman's 2008 release Time Past & Time Passing. But the '08 version was a stark, solo affair featuring just Chapman and his guitar. The full-band take he cut for 50 has more in common with the one Lucinda Williams did for the Tompkins Square label's excellent 2012 Chapman tribute album, Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman.
Amid a chiming, atmospheric mix of acoustic- and electric-guitar arpeggios as autumnal as the lyrics, Chapman's appealingly leathery, lived-in voice — not dissimilar to that of late fellow traveler John Martyn — takes a backward glance at a long line of memories that are part of a "thread that can't be broken" running through all of our lives. Brilliantly and succinctly capturing the blend of world-weary toughness and emotional vulnerability that is crucial to the song, Chapman at one point sings, "You know I don't scare easy," before displaying a master's sense of timing by waiting a beat before adding the punchline, "but I do get scared."
After 75 years on the planet, and 50 spent putting his reflections to music, Chapman may have developed a thick skin, but the soul inside of it can still speak to the uncertainty that lives in all of us. Still, even in the midst of the dark night of the soul he conjures up here, Chapman remains defiant and unapologetic. For all his regrets and misgivings, he nevertheless declares, "Take me for what I am or not at all," fully owning the place on the planet he has come to occupy after all these years. By the time the cyclical barroom piano line in the tune's coda starts repeating, it feels as though the hazy, dreamlike reverie Chapman has been moving through is beginning to tumble over itself and spirit him off with its ragged momentum — either to dive more deeply into this dream, or to begin another one.
50 comes out Jan. 20, 2017 on Paradise of Bachelors.