Dan Penn – Living On Mercy
Last Music Co – 2020
13 tracks; 51 minutes
Dan Penn’s place in the songwriting Hall of Fame is assured with classics like “I’m Your Puppet” and “Dark End Of The Street” among the many songs he has written over a long career which started in the 1960’s. Dan was born close to Muscle Shoals in Alabama and joined Rick Hall’s FAME studio work at a young age, concentrating on song writing once “I’m Your Puppet” became a huge success for James and Bobby Purify. Perhaps preferring writing and producing, Dan has been less prolific as a solo recording artist and this is his first release in over a decade, the songs written in collaboration with familiar collaborators such as Carson Whitsett, Gary Nicholson, Wayne Carson, Spooner Oldham, Buzz Cason, Bucky Lindsey and The Cate Brothers, as well as two with Will McFarlane who plays guitar on all tracks. The sessions took place in Muscle Shoals and Nashville with Clayton Ivey on keys, Michael Rhodes on bass, Milton Sledge on drums and Will on guitar; Clayton also added strings to some songs and a three man horn section of Charles Rose (trombone), Doug Moffett (saxes) and Drew White (trumpet) appears on several tracks. Backing vocals are by Dan, Buzz, Cindy Walker and Marie Lewey.
Now nearing 80 years of age, Dan’s voice has a wistful, lived-in tone which suits these songs well as he weaves tales of love, regret and thankfulness round tunes that have plenty of soul in them. The album is book-ended by two great songs about faith: the title track has a beautiful melody as Dan sings of getting old; “More dead than alive but somehow I still survive. I must be living on mercy. Your love nearly killed me a thousand times, have mercy on me and don’t ever set me free. It’s good and it’s bad but it’s the best love I’ve ever had”. Is that love a partner or God? The meaning of the title track may be arguable but “One Of These Days” is crystal clear as Dan contemplates his end: “I know there’ll come a time when the Lord will draw the line, time’s running out one of these days”. With angelic backing vocals and Clayton’s lovely piano and organ work the song has clear gospel influences and makes a superb closer to the album. Both those tracks come from the Muscle Shoals sessions which also includes five more songs, the pick of which has to be “Clean Slate”, a collaboration with Gary Nicholson and Carson Whitsett. If you were looking at a Dan Penn song that might become another classic, look no further than this uplifting tune, listen to Dan’s lyrics about starting over and just imagine the song delivered by a full-bore soul singer. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is another winner with heart-breaking lyrics about spending your day just waiting to see your departed lover again in your dreams. “I Didn’t Hear That Coming” ups the tempo a little with the piano setting the pace on a gently funky number which finds Dan reminiscing about a relationship that he never imagined would happen.
Six tracks come from the Nashville sessions. “Down On Music Row” takes a wry look at music fashions as Dan is told that his style is out of date and that “the world has moved on” with horn accents and stately organ giving the tune a gospel feel. “Edge Of Love” has more good horn work and a strong core guitar riff and two songs written with The Cate Brothers are both excellent in contrasting ways: “Soul Connection” has a bright feel from a bouncy rhythm section and upfront guitar fills over soulful organ while the slower “Blue Motel” again has some fine guitar work as Dan’s sorrowful vocal describes a place where desperate lovers meet: “It’s a long and winding dusty road on the outskirts of Hell where only losers find their way to this old rundown motel.”
Lou Reed apparently once told Dan that if he had written a song as good as “I’m Your Puppet” he would have given up songwriting right then. Thank goodness that Dan Penn is determined to keep pushing forward and provide music like this for us to enjoy. Not a blues album by any stretch of the imagination but a fine release of thoughtful, soulful music.