The horrendously rare talent that is Michael J. Sheehy has finally released his fourth solo album after a five year period that began when he was dropped from Beggars Banquet, a huge mistake on their part, in 2002. This probably happened because Sheehy, although incredibly gifted, is so unfathomably unknown as an artist. From London, he started out in the mid 1990’s as the singer and songwriter in Dream City Film Club. His former band combined the incendiary with the sorrowful, sounding like an amalgam of the best of Bauhaus, The Stooges, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. What set them apart from the others, however, was the voice of Michael J. Sheehy. His fragile, often vulnerable sounding vocals are the antithesis to the bravado of singers such as Iggy Pop and Peter Murphy. Sure, he adjusted his voice for the more raucous and cacophonous material, but on the slow, doleful songs, his talent as a singer truly shines. Dream City Film Club disbanded in 1999, and Sheehy has gone on to create a succession of solo albums that focus on the down tempo, mellow side of his songwriting. His first record, Sweet Blue Gene, is perhaps his best release as he found the perfect balance between swampy, delta blues and heart wrenching ballads on that album. Although he becomes a little bit more placid with each release, Ghost on the Motorway continues in much the same manner, and focuses most on his gospel, country and blues influences.
This new album has a prominent folk and gospel sound running through it as an undercurrent, but the songs also combine elements of several other genres. “Crawling Back to the Church” is a bluesy number that is accentuated by stomping feet and chiming percussion. The marsh like grime of the track is embellished with a subtle gospel style chorus of backing vocalists. “Retread the Dry Bony Ground” is a simple acoustic guitar folk song with a similar style of backing vocals that are provided by overdubbed recordings of Sheehy’s lovely voice. “Bloody Nose” is a woozy, hangover track, led by an organ that has a hymn-like backbone to it, which makes it sound like a church standard. In the song, Sheehy spills out a succinct story about falling on his face after a sexual encounter. He is not too concerned with the outcome though, he even embraces it, as he sings the closing line, “but a life without trouble really ain’t no life at all.”
“Toriano Avenue” is another unadorned folk song that would have fit in well on his second album, Ill Gotten Gains. It sounds like something from Hope Sandoval’s Bavarian Fruit Bread record with its dream-like melody and glockenspiel accompaniment. A few of the songs are reminiscent of modern day Tom Waits, notably “New Orleans,” which features a similar vocal percussion effect apparent in Real Gone, although here it is much less prominent. “Break in the Clouds” is a fantastic opening song that was bred in the space between invitation and apprehension. It has a lonely, campfire feel to it as you can almost hear the crackle of a fire nearby. This one sounds as if it could be the brother or sister to Waits’ “Strange Weather.”
As with all of Sheehy’s releases, there is a fair amount of dark humor in Ghost on the Motorway. He always finds a way to combine beautiful melodies with witty, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The aforementioned song “New Orleans,” is about an evening out in a strange town, where the late night search for female solace turns into a trip to the hospital. While talking to a modest beauty in a strip club, her Neanderthal Marine husband comes in and a this is what ensues: “He called me a limey midget/I said I’m Irish actually/Then he pulled a six inch blade and he shoved it in me.” He goes on to say, “I woke up six days later in a hospital bed/tubes coming out of every hole by rights I should’ve been dead/Two long months lying very still/And I wished they’d let me die when they handed me the bill.”
When listening to the music of Michael J Sheehy, you are often caught trying to decide whether you want to weep or laugh. He has a penchant for combining the humorous and the mournful that makes him so unique. Because of this, his music has a quality to it that is almost beyond compare. And once you couple this with the fact that he is an incredible songwriter, the whole formula makes his music no less than utterly moving. All of his records, solo and with Dream City Film Club, are excellent. Hopefully, he will earn his due and respect some day. It is possible, however, that he has become a bit tired of his lack of exposure. As “So Long Sorrow Town” states, “Fare thee well all you sons of bitches/If I don’t leave now I’m gonna leave one of you in stitches/You bullshit merchants with your heirs and graces/We’ll be in hell next time I see your faces/So long sorrow town/Tomorrow I’ll be long gone/Thought some of you were friends of mine/Turns out I was wrong all along.” Meanwhile, those of us who are familiar with his brilliant output can keep this dirty little secret all to ourselves. Maybe Sheehy even prefers it that way?