If you knew nothing about Mumblin’ Deaf Ro besides his name you would surely place him as an old blues singer, sat on the porch of some wooden cabin in the Deep South between Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell, strumming out those familiar delta sounds. After a listen through ‘Dictionary Crimes’ however you’d quickly realise that he’s probably sat quite comfortably in a well-insulated living room somewhere in suburban Ireland.
The opening track Cheer Up, Charlie Brown gives a good indication of the overall sound of the album. The guitars on this track are a constant throughout, with the odd addition of a bass or a clean electric here and there. The singing voice Ro (Ronan Hession) utilises, a quiet throaty sound (or mumble if you like) is also appropriately unvarying, so from the beginning you should know what you’re getting. But for this the album does not suffer. Ro’s guitar-style is incredibly versatile, and he manages to create many different sounds throughout the album, from the Spanish inflections of ‘Little Mite’ to the Olde English ballad feel of ‘The Harm’.
At a pleasingly symmetrical ten songs, the album consists of a number of vignettes about everyday life. The lyrics were clearly written in a stream-of-consciousness flow that is simple in its narrative progression, allowing the listener to float away with it. In their most basic synopses Sister Ill is about spending time with a sister recently recovered from an illness, The Birdcage is about a mother’s feeble later years, On Being Bill Cosby is a reflection on fatherhood etc. The songs can be seen in these simple terms, but the atmospheric music which plays underneath these stories gives them an emotional depth that grabs you by the hand and leads you along.
Each song is like a jigsaw piece to a much larger puzzle. You get an outline of a man’s life, a man who is clearly a committed family man, religious, thoughtful. The sound of the album is driven by the calmness of middle-age, a calmness that is all appearance, where the urgency of youth has turned inwards and instead fuels a reflective and melancholy mentality with which to look at the cards life deals and how to play them. The story of a brother emigrating in St. Christopher’s Water is told with poignancy but nothing overly insightful. The point of the song – and all the songs on the album – is to give these everyday occurrences a kind of majesty that is not inherent to them, or is usually hidden.
In a way, Ronan is not that different from those old blues singers of long ago. They perhaps had more dirt on their shoes, but they, like Ro, sang about the struggles of everyday life over inventive and appealing guitar tones, the purpose of which being to take these bad feelings and sing about them. The act of singing makes these slices of life into works of art, showing that even the tough times have a beauty if for no other reason than because they are a part of life.