No one can accuse Chris Murphy of being a slacker. In the last year, Murphy’s released three full length studio albums solidifying his standing as one of the finest purveyors of Americana working today. The latest of these trio of albums, The Tinker’s Dream, stands to be ranked as the best of the lot. This release, unlike the previous two, relies a little more on instrumentals, but the songwriting coherence and unity of purpose demonstrated over the course of these dozen songs is quite a bit stronger than the two very sturdy albums preceding it. There’s a decidedly sprightly and Celtic spin to a lot of these songs, particularly the aforementioned instrumental tracks, but Murphy doesn’t follow one track. He, instead, varies his approach at key points and has clearly built this album with considerable thought to its running order and song placement.
The opener, “Connemara Ponies”, starts things off beautifully. This is the big screen sort of epic that you’d hope Murphy delivers on this sort of release and he doesn’t disappoint. It isn’t difficult, with its upbeat tempo and layered instrumentation, to imagine flying over some pastoral setting and watching wild horses running free below. Murphy’s violin playing, in particular, has the fluency and melodic command to suggest such things. The album’s title song is likewise propelled by his violin with understated percussion and acoustic guitar buttressing those efforts. The tempo shifts slightly and slows down in the second half of the song with the acoustic guitar assuming more of an equal footing with Murphy’s playing, but the tempo surges again for a rousing finale. “Wicklow” is the album’s first song with lyrics and Murphy’s clear vocal delivery ties in nicely with the musical backing. He has unquestionable skill as a songwriter for co-opting the language and musical tropes of traditional music while branding it with his own personality – this succeeds in revamping those traditional elements for a modern audience without ever losing the older spirit informing his art.
“Gibraltar 1988” has a much darker, melancholic air that the earlier songs. Murphy’s violin plays some very melodic lines and benefits from some keen interplay with woodwind instruments and well-timed percussion flourishes. The album’s first single, with an accompanying video, shares some slight lyrical similarities with the earlier track “Wicklow”, but there’s more humor factoring in to this track than the earlier number. It returns listeners to the same jaunty tempos heard on the earlier cuts and speeds along without ever feeling rushed. The tempo remains lively, but a little tempered in comparison, on “Small Wonder”. The vocal melody is a little weaker than some listeners might like, but it’s equally obvious that this is simply just a very different sort of song than the earlier lyric driven songs. There’s even a hint of pensiveness peeking through some of the music and words alike that gives “Small Wonder” a slant not present in those previous tunes. The instrumental “Maritime Jig” depends on how well Murphy’s violin playing and the song’s secondary instruments work together for its success and it scores on every count in that area. There are some interesting tempo variations in the song that give listeners a brief glimpse into the heart of their interplay and those moments help make for one of the album’s late and most satisfying gems.
The album’s conclusion, “The Hayloft Waltz”, doesn’t go to any great pains in stressing its signature tempo and sounds very natural, like it was cut in a single take with little preparation going in/ Listeners should strongly suspect that the effort to realize this song was probably much greater, but it’s a measure of Murphy’s magic that the fruits of his labor sound so organic and relaxed. The Tinker’s Dream is a first class release in every respect and shows no truly meaningful weaknesses – it is always a mild thrill, at very least, to encounter a musical artist and songwriter working near or at the peak of his powers.