Music Review: Al Tuck - Stranger At The Wake

Tuck might not be the most obvious person to record a gospel opus in a church, one that exclaims without a doubt the existence of the almighty, but Al does admit to his sins and shortcomings in There Is A God. It's the multi-part centrepiece to this new album, its verses spread across the entire collection, beginning and ended it. "Well you may ask me what I say upon religion, though I smoke and though I drink and around I lay," it starts, and Tuck proceeds to tell us the various ways good and evil, trials and tribulations, and divine intervention run our lives. This isn't gospel, but it is preaching, or maybe it's the Gospel according to Al.

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The album's recent inclusion on the Polaris Prize Long List speaks to the heavyweight nature of the songs here. Whether he's singing blues, gospel, funky jazz or folk, Tuck hits us with lyrics that troll the dark side of one's nature, characters that are hounded by the war inside us and outside, the "war on all things natural, all things good". Sometimes he points out picky stuff he doesn't like, giving a shout-out to "the women not sporting tattoos", and elsewhere it's big-picture finger-pointing, telling us a tsunami can be triggered by something other than natural causes. On the 10-minute long title cut, Tuck rambles through a sloppy-on-purpose country crooner, accidentally stumbling into a women's funeral party, getting plastered, and watching the spectacle. The questions go both ways here, the uninvited guest wondering about the young woman who took her own life, and the friends and family trying to figure out who the stranger could be.

The grief of lost love shows up as well, the groom who wouldn't dance at his own wedding, now a symbol of their broken union, a decision regretted as the start of the split. In the sparse folk ballad That Married Life, once again it's not a new love he seeks, he wants his old one back. It's a bleak state of affairs, life, but Tuck's back to sing There Is A God at each dark point. It's an odd, unsettling dichotomy, this admitted sinner and somewhat unsympathetic character, who holds strongly to old-fashioned, conservative values, sings an old crooner song (Walking By The River), and likes his Old Testament and the new one too. But he does speak for all of us sinners and sad cases; whatever is coming, we hope our good, secret heart will be read before judgement. Now, dare I go here? Sure. Tuck is Waitsian, Cohenesque, Dylan-like in his song construction and lyrical topics. Like each of those writers, he's his own distinct, fascinating character.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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