Michael Chapman masterfully plays the acoustic guitar with passion, grace, and style. He’s been doing this for more than 50 years and has released more than 50 albums. Audiences and fellow musicians have routinely celebrated Chapman’s fluid sound and spiritual concerns. This has remained a constant element of his work.
Chapman has recorded with iconic musicians from pop megastar Elton John to avant-garde luminary Jim O’Rourke. Chapman’s songs have also been covered by alt-rockers like Kurt Vile and Lucinda Williams. Chapman’s stamp on his music has always been easy to discern no matter who he has played with or who’s playing his song. There’s a warm fuzziness to his tone and a certain ring to how his notes just linger in the open spaces of his strumming. Chapman’s distinctive guitar style—part folk, part free-flowing jazz—can be found on his earliest releases and those of the present day.
True North features Chapman working with a full band: Bridget St. John, Sarah Smout, BJ Cole, and Steve Gunn. Chapman’s guitar is in the forefront, often leading the songs off with lovely melodic lines that repeat mantra-like with slight variations. The band members exquisitely provide atmospherics that put his guitar in a larger context. There is much quiet and space present in the individual tracks, especially the instrumentals such as “Eleuthera” and “Caddo Lake”.
Chapman’s singing is True North’s major shortcoming. Even in Chapman’s prime, He did not have a very good voice. His vocals were often compared with Bob Dylan’s. At 78 years of age, Chapman’s voice has not improved. Chapman’s well aware of his limitations. He croons in hushed, measured tones most often after letting his guitar introduce the mood. While it is tempting to say the album would be better off without words, this is just not true. Chapman’s lyrics, like the Nobel Prize winning laureate Dylan, reveal the wisdom of experience and the experience of wisdom: that ouroboros of consciousness that shows one’s place in the world.
“Sometimes no disguise / Is the best disguise of all,” Chapman tells us in the confessional “Vanity & Pride”. He speaks as one who knows the time he has left is less than the time he has ill-spent, as he says on “Youth Is Wasted on the Young”. The lessons of age are not one of regret but realistically and rigorously examining how one got here. Songs such as “It’s Too Late” and “After All This Time” reiterate this message. He doesn’t consider fate a divine plan as much as a cosmic accident. The categorical imperative is to accept one’s role and appreciate that though one has not created the world, one still lives here.
And as his guitar playing demonstrates, there is also something transcendent in quotidian reality: dreams to pursue, places to relax and reflect, and people to be with. In Britain where Chapman is from, geographical maps may display grid north or magnetic north instead of true north to make them easier to read and travel by, even if they distort the reality. True north is the direction towards the North Pole. As the title suggests, Chapman headed to the True North . His music takes the more difficult path towards what is constant. He’s bound to what really exists.