MICHAEL MASSEY – Naked
You can buy the album here.
It’s been twelve years since Michael Massey released a solo record. 2005-2006 was a productive period for the lifelong Madison-area musician, composer and producer, releasing two instrumental piano recordings. In a momentous return to pop music he also produced the excellent Attack of the Delicious later the same year, an album many consider one of their favorite local releases. Far from unproductive in these intervening years Massey carried on with his craft, delivering jingles and accompaniments for his business clients and staying actively involved with his daughter Emily’s musical ambitions with Modern Mod and Melkweed. There were a couple of reunions with his successful rock outfit of yore, Chaser, a band that helped define Madison’s golden era of live groups and nearly broke through to the big time. Massey was also commissioned to write the score for Dracula: A Rock Ballet. The theater presentation was a smashing success with Massey and his former Chaser-mates positioned behind the actors, delivering a live soundtrack that was nothing short of kick-ass. That music was released on CD in 2013. Massey was also a member of the now defunct Stop the Clock, that group releasing an album in 2014 entitled Gifted at the Hula.
In addition to his career, Massey has been on a lifelong quest to become a more complete person. He overcame alcoholism and became a devoted family man. Always poised, pleasant and infinitely optimistic, those who know him personally experience joy in his presence; those who attend his many solo performances, appearances with Steely Dane, duo appearances with singer Francie Phelps and his Ivory Room piano extravaganzas all receive the joy of his love to play. What gives the man his effervescence is not his burying of the past, his darker days and excesses, but fully embracing them in a solemn battle to keep on the sunny side of life.
Massey reaffirms all of his struggles in “More,” a courageous acknowledgement of his shortcomings, both musically and personally, rededicating himself to moving on and the realization that what is left after the carnage is beautifully worthy and immensely rewarding. “Searching deep inside through twisting passageways / To find the man I was before / I throw away the bottle and the mask it made / to find my calm before the storm / To find the key, unlock the door / I found the key unlocking more,” he sings in his notoriously Bowie-esque delivery, the missed opportunities of the “adoring crowds” evolving into a “mindful crowd” more attuned to his songs in the end. “More” is performed on piano with a lone bass adding weight, underscoring its intimacy.
“I’m Learning” is an adaptation of a poem sent to Massey and mirrors the self-examination of “More,” learning to find a truer path to a more complete existence: “So tend your garden / Decorate your soul / Realize the difference between lonely and alone / And I’m learning I’m someone / Worthy and strong.” Massey’s piano is especially solid on this one.
A resigned nostalgia conflates with the contemplative throughout Naked. Like “More,” the opening track, “Nice to See You Again,” is a delivered with only piano, a reminiscence of a former romantic interest and perhaps as a salutation to his fans. It doesn’t take long for Massey to affirm his agelessness. Now in his late fifties, his voice soars with clarity and the range of a much younger singer. His melodies feel effortless and his songs make sense, as if there is no other way they could be done nor by anyone else.
“Tears Disappear,” a gem of a nostalgic pop song with a killer chorus, is another highlight on Naked. The blend of vocals between Massey and Phelps is simply sublime, relaying a chance encounter with a sweetness that is soaked in loneliness. Reminiscent of Elton John, including a reference to the Mona Lisa, this remains quintessentially Massey and one of his finest songs. Phelps takes the lead vocal on “Not Pretending,” an orchestrated coming-of-age song also featuring their exquisite harmonization.
There are a couple of band arrangements; “The World (Keeps Movin’ On)” features Phelps and Kyle Henderson on backing vocals, with a slinky guitar solo courtesy of Joel Pingatore. This arrangement is one that is built on an acoustic guitar foundation rather than piano with Tony Cerniglia on cajon and Frank Queram on bass. “Hang On” was written in Santa Monica after a night on the streets. A bouncy piano-driven tune it also features Al Falaschi on saxophone.
Massey freely admits that these songs are a trip down memory lane, some being quite old and reinterpreted to purge himself of the strong emotions attached to them. “Dawn is Breaking” is a reprise of “Nice to See You Again,” the last meeting with his first love. “Friends Forever” echoes these sentiments as does “Save Me a Memory,” all delivered on piano, all cutting close to the bone. “Mary” is song written in New York, a vision of a better life for a young woman whose path he crossed on 7th Avenue. “Soliloquy for a Friend” closes the album, a possible response to “Save Me a Memory” and a fitting, parting line: “It’s me against the world.”
In the craziness that is already defining the year 2017, Naked is somewhat of an oasis and a contemplation of struggles of a different sort. May we all find some relief and some release in music. What makes efforts like this so immediate is that they are created by neighbors and fellow Madisonians, people that, if we don’t already count them as friends, we could so easily, you know. You’ll find out quite a bit about Michael Massey, the man by listening to his music and that fearless feat makes life more approachable and more meaningful. Stay on the sunny side.