Dan Penn | Living on Mercy | (The Last Music Co.)
4 out of 5 stars
Dan Penn doesn’t record many albums. He doesn’t need to.
As one of America’s most revered songwriters, his compositions for others are some of the greatest in Southern R&B. From “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “It Tears Me Up,” “Sweet Inspiration” to “Cry Like a Baby” and “Dark End of the Street,” the latter arguably his crowning achievement, Penn’s name is forever etched into the annals of classic soul even if he never wrote, let alone sung, another tune.
The songwriter’s previous recording from 1994 found him cutting many of his definitive titles with his own unassuming approach. That makes this set of originals an unexpected treat for music lovers who might have logically thought Penn had retired. Now pushing 80, he has returned with 12 new originals (and one obscure oldie), some co-written with longtime friends like Gary Nicholson, Spooner Oldham, and Will McFarland. And while there doesn’t seem to be another track as durable as the ones already in his catalog, it’s a good example of the easy rolling, sweet R&B/country/gospel that mirrors his finest work.
Penn’s lyrics don’t often stray from examining the highs and lows of found and lost love, and he follows that blueprint here. But it’s how he expresses those feelings, and the relaxed melodies he creates around them, that puts the Penn stamp on songs like the opening title track. He sings “Your love nearly killed me a thousand times” with the subtle resignation and regret those words elicit as the stripped down but supple instrumentation envelopes his vocals. It’s a perfect way to reintroduce a voice many have never heard before, with a song that could have been written last week or 40 years ago.
A few tracks like the moderately more upbeat and bluesy “Soul Connection” (“Way down in the deepest part, I’m connected to you”) and the jaunty “I Didn’t Hear That Coming” about an old high school acquaintance surprisingly expressing her affection, add a bit of energy even if the latter gets a little schlocky with strings on its bridge. But cuts such as “Clean Slate” and the bittersweet R&B of the ballad “Things Happen” with its spoken introduction capture the core of what Penn does best.
Some selections could have been edited to make this a shorter, stronger collection, especially since the smooth, unruffled mid-tempo groove gets a little stale by the album’s final third. But it’s a pleasure to have Penn back on the music scene he is so inextricably tied to, writing and cutting fresh tracks with the same attention to detail and overall mojo he applied to the timeless gems that made him such an iconic name in American soul music.