I hate to speak of people as treasures – local, national, whatever. “Treasure” implies a bygone value from a bygone time, out of context now and of worth chiefly as a historical token; the doubloons that we preserve in order to remember. Plus, as soon as you use the word “treasure,” arts councils get involved. Small industries are built on curating such human treasure; purity and provenance are everything to them. You had better really be from them hills. So to describe the genre-bending Woodstock-based songwriter Paul McMahon in a way that will not engage the treasure-hunters, I will borrow a technical term from the language of musicians: He is a bad__s m__________r.
McMahon has got treasures – so many that he needs to swat the dragons away. Styles and skills arcane and universal play through his “folk” songs with fluid ease, and with no regard for preservationist purity or a that’s-how-they-used-to-do-it accuracy. You’ll catch whiffs of rural blues, Dylanesque long-form narrative, deft fingerstyle folk, garage rock, chant, crooner pop, punk, maybe even some madrigal – all of it fully digested and now apparent only as traces in an original, mature voice. We’ll call it folk because it is one man and his parlor guitar. In truth, McMahon is his own poly-genre.
Most of McMahon’s lyrical themes can be teased out of the multiple puns in the title of his latest CD, Hymn to Her. It is devotional (with an Eastern bent) and in the same breath carnal; comic but deep with pathos; mythological and current, often in the same image. To say that McMahon weaves together sacred and profane, timeless and topical doesn’t quite do justice to the spontaneous grace and high-resolution detail of the tapestry.
Hymn to Her is a stripped-down, modest recording, highlighting McMahon’s heavyweight musical assets: an assured, second-nature self-accompaniment on acoustic guitar and a rangy, agreeable voice with sweet spots in all registers (and an uncanny ability to turn into an inhuman drone instrument, like a shruti box or a didgeridoo). I assume – no, I am certain – that the basic voice and guitar tracks were recorded live. The only enhancements come in the form of spot vocal overdubs: stacked harmonies that appear sporadically but to great effect.
After a few listens, you may come to think that, a lot of the time (perhaps much more than we know!), McMahon is just winging it. Sometimes, this is discernable primarily in the lyrics, as in the lovely opening track “Only Love (Is)” in which a simple fingerpicked folk form fills with increasingly stream-of-consciousness contents. But in the album’s centerpiece, the sprawling “Hanuman and Anjani,” I am almost positive that we are witnessing true spontaneous composition. And while they are not there to disguise the improvised nature of the song, the overdubbed vocal harmonies do serve the purpose of formalizing things, helping both McMahon and the listener identify motifs and moments of thematic emphasis.
At its wildest, it is not formless music, but rather beyond inherited form. Form is just another element at play, along with words and melody. McMahon’s sharp pop instincts steer and steady his improvisational flight. They are always at the ready to pull a surprising resolution or refrain out of the air or to alight on a melody worth working with for a while, before some lyrical association or other pulls his attention elsewhere.
I didn’t know this when I first saw him live several years ago, but it turns out that Paul McMahon is a bad__s m__________r on paper as well as onstage. He has had a career with a lot of bona fide validations. No surprise there. Check the website if you want to know more of his storied story. Listening to Hymn to Her, you’ll know that he could button it down and deliver classicist folk treasures if he felt like it, and his discography backs this up. But, right now at least, he doesn’t seem to feel like it, and why should he? Clearly, a lot of traditional musical disciplines have been well learned here and then let go. Their boundaries have dissolved and McMahon has found his own largely improvisational path: desultory, whim-driven and, in a way that reminds me of the novelist Henry Miller, unapologetic for his attention deficits.
The cavalier and wayward flavor of it may turn some listeners off. I cannot say for sure how much of this work is improvised and how much written. I suppose I could ask, but it is no issue. What are compositions, anyway, but the improvisations that you choose to repeat? I see McMahon as someone for whom music is a spiritual pursuit, not so much in his content as in his poised trust in the ongoing good will and bottomless resources of the Muse.
Visit Paul’s website to learn more at www.paulmcmahon.tv/music.