The repertoire on Swan Song takes in nearly 100 years of songwriting, starting with “Trouble Will Soon Be Over”, written in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson and moving through to Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In” which was written in 2018 for the Clint Eastwood movie, The Mule.
The first single off Swan Song, “Don’t Let The Old Man In” was James’ suggestion – and, in its lyrics (“Many moons I have lived/My body’s weathered and worn” and “Toast each sundown with wine/Don’t let the old man in”), the song is a reflection of James’ own journey and refusal to let time decide when his career is over. A stirring version of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” also echoes James’ life in its meditation on the process of aging, and Swan Song features a heartfelt tip-of-the-hat to his peers in an elegant, and delicately produced, take on The Staccato’s version of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me”.
Indeed, threading together songs like the effervescent, country-infused “The Glory of Love” (featuring Salva Zaca on acoustic lead guitar), “As Long as I Live” (featuring Nianell) and “The Pain of Loving You” (with Elizma Theron and Liza Brönner) is a deep resonance with James’ life – and all of our lives. Even the decidedly obscure covers carry a poignancy that’s deeply affecting. One of these is a version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” which Mudie envisaged as a forlorn ballad, evoking a sparsely populated and windswept prairie. An album standout that features an assembly of superb players (Martin Schofield, Blackie Swart, Sez Adamson, Waldo Alexander and Dan Chiorboli) and an evocative prelude composed by Fink, the recording’s centrepiece is a stunning one-take vocal that sees James’ almost speaking James Hetfield’s lyrics.
The dramatic shading of this new version of a defiantly hard rock song is balanced by another of Swan Song’s standouts – a sparse version of “Trouble Will Soon Be Over”. The track features a magnificent guest vocal spot by The Mahotella Queens that, without any contrivance, brings together two iconic South African artists who’d never met or performed together before. James admits he was so moved by the Queens’ performance and the historical importance of the moment that he cried after the recording session. “Witnessing their incredible gifts brought me to tears,” he says.
What makes Swan Song so truly noteworthy is the musicality it showcases, which is quite unlike anything to have emerged from South Africa before.
CD / LP TRACKLIST
1 Lie to me ft. Debbi Lonmon & Stewart Irving
2 The pain of loving you ft. Elizma Theron & Liza Bronner
3 Don’t let the old man in ft. Jason Bradley
4 Tower of song ft. Cindy Alter
5 High heel sneakers ft. Bianca Blanc
6 As long as I live ft. Nianell
7 (Sitting on the) Dock of the bay ft. Debbi Lonmon & Stewart Irving
8 Prelude – Nothing else matters
9 Nothing else matters ft. Cito
10 Cry to me ft. Debbi Lonmon & Stewart Irving
11 Leave me alone with the blues
12 Trouble will soon be over ft. The Mahotella Queens
13 The glory of love ft. Salva Zaca
14 Rollin’ and tumblin’ ft. Robin Auld