Review by Dale Unsworth
Since first appearing on the progressive rock scene in the early 90s with Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse has proven over the years to be one of the hardest working figures in music, sometimes putting out 2 or 3 albums a year, some of which are considered modern Prog classics like “Bridge Across Forever” or “The Light”.
The great thing about a musician with a discography as expansive as Neal’s is that each project he works on has its own identity and his latest solo album, Life and Times, is a fairly simple acoustic album which may turn away some listeners expecting a grandiose high concept album will be disappointed as this album is a more introspective and reserved.
Inspired by many of the places he visited during the “Long Road Home” tour in 2016, Neal reflects on the places he’s been and the sights he has seen and overall he seems appreciative of how his life has gone and with the exception of “He Died at Home” he makes little effort to touch on grand subject matter which helps provide a light-hearted tone for the rest of the record.
The first track on the record, “Livin’ Lightly”, lyrically represents what the album is about from the first few seconds as Neal starts by musing, “I just thought I’d write a song / to tell you the way I feel” Which gives the album a more casual feeling which is somewhat rare in modern prog but with that said, the album still makes use of the storytelling techniques that has made Neal Morse such a big name in progressive rock..
As mentioned before, “He Died at Home” is a more progressive and dark song compared to the other songs compiled in this record and it is a fantastically written song and has such an emotional impact it does feel strange to include it in this as it could easily be expanded upon and been retooled into some kind of epic track but this may be down to personal taste. The story follows a child with dreams of becoming a soldier and follows his life through joining the army, coming home and taking his own life after struggling for many years with PTSD, the story structure of this song is fantastic and that such a deep and emotionally charged song with many interesting characters can be told in 5 minutes proves that a grandiose tale doesn’t need 15 minutes and an orchestra devoted to it, as is the Prog tradition.
Being a resident of Manchester, it baffles me to hear someone sing of riding the Midlands train on Oxford Road with such joy but Neal manages to accomplish such a feat and makes Manchester seem like such a friendly and welcoming place and upon listening to the album numerous times this song never fails to bring a smile to my face, it’s hard to find such a sweet and joyous song anything but fun.
The album ends on a bittersweet note, “If I Only Had a Day” deals with regrets in life as well as reflecting on accomplishments while accepting mortality, Neal sings about making the most of what little time everyone has and not wasting it on trivialities and anger and ends on a triumphant note.
Overall, the album provides a number of happy little tunes and a number of moments that help paint a clearer picture of Morse as both a person and a musician and to hear more of Morse’s more stripped down songs would be more than welcome in the future and given the enviable work ethic he maintains, it wouldn’t be surprising if he did.