Album of the Week, September 20: Blackberry by John Bottomley

BottomleyBlackberryCanadian troubadour John Bottomley began his musical career in his teens. By his early twenties he founded the band Tulpa with his brother, Chris; they recorded one album before he launched his solo career. Library of the Sun, released in 1990, got solid reviews and landed him a major label deal. Song with the Ornamental Hermits solidified Bottomley’s sound — a mystical/naturalist folk, a strong sense of story, and a driving rock base — and continued his critical success. After winning the Juno for Most Promising Male Vocalist, he returned to the studio and recorded his most powerful set, Blackberry.

Album Blackberry
Act John Bottomley
Label RCA Release Date 1995
Producer Colin Linden and John Whynot
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. The River
  2. You Lose and You Gain
  3. Long Way to Go
  4. She Is Mine
  5. Klee Wyck
  6. Brother to the Sea
  7. Spirit of Love
  8. Saint Psalm
  9. Fly With Your Shadow
  10. Battle of the Trees
  11. A Candle In the Dark

The album opens with a gentle ballad that sets the lyrical tone for the disc. The River blends rich natural imagery with mysterious moments and a beautiful musical line. Crisp snare and a soothing guitar line propel the song, conjuring up the flow of the river. You Lose and You Gain is the singer’s finest moment, a gorgeous tune of cautious optimism. “All this growth has come from pain,” he observes, building his distinctive take on a standard folk theme. He follows up with Long Way to Go, a haunting song that makes it clear the growth will not happen overnight. This opening trio is remarkable, demonstrating the best work of a unique talent.

She Is Mine finds Bottomley pondering the power of love. It’s one of his most straightforward songs, a touching ode to a soulmate. On Klee Wyck, he pays tribute to a kindred spirit. Emily Carr was an early 20th Century painter from western Canada who used natural imagery and First Nations symbolism. The song gets its title from the name given to her by the Ucluelet — the Laughing One — which she used for her autobiography. Bottomley crafts a nice tribute, clearly connecting the work of the two artists separated by decades and media. Brother to the Sea has a similarly biographical feel, blending natural images neatly with the charater’s story. It features an almost honky tonk piano that changes up the sound nicely without feeling out of place.

Spirit of Love is another standout, a joyous burst of music that fuses all the elements of Bottomley’s music into a celebratory whole. Saint Psalm is a curious mix. Lyrically, it’s a mystical stranger song, relating the singer’s encounter with a spirit visitor. Musically, it’s one of his hardest rocking tracks, with a grungy guitar and loud drum. The blend works surprisingly well, demonstrating Bottomley’s deft hand.

A steady snare propels Fly With Your Shadow, a mysterious story that offers a darker glimpse of hope. Battle of the Trees is an ecology song, a nicely constructed parable that fits into the album well. Bottomley wraps things up with A Candle In the Dark, offered “In memory of the future”. It’s a perfect closer, a promise that hard work will pay off, not just for oneself, but by setting up a better world for the next generation.

The blackberry is a complicated plant, sweet berry and painful thorn. In herbal lore, it is used for protection, but in dream analysis it can portend sorrow and loss. Given Bottomley’s mystical naturalism, it’s no accident that he chose this symbol as the title of his finest work. Struggle, loss, hope, and growth twine together in his music like the brambles of his title. His smart lyrics, carefully crafted music, and singular vision make the rewards well worth the effort.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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