Philip Lewin’s Am I Really Here All Alone is a record that shouldn’t be discussed void of context. It’s an old recording, dating back to 1975, but its old release was limited to a single pressing of a few hundred LPs. Without any attention after this release, it feels like the album was in cryogenic stasis, and was unfrozen just this February by Tompkin Square Records. Most songs from that era we still listen to have changed their meaning through endless play on classic or oldies stations and association with artists who they inspired. Having stayed off the radar for so long, Am I Really Here All Alone is not as changed by those factors and is a more raw look at what the period felt like.
The album is filled with melancholy. The echoey reverb on the guitars and the delay on his voice give an underlying presence of numbness to inevitable pain. The lead guitar plays emotionally potent melodies that are then tempered by Lewin’s almost monotone vocals then remove a certain severity of the feeling, even with powerful lyrics. A lot of artists could and would make a lyric like “the rain washed away the watercolors of my dreams” into a heavy handed appeal to misery, but Lewin delivers it as if it’s a minor inconvenience. You won’t shed a tear from these lyrics, but you’ll breathe a huge sigh.
Much of the songcraft is typical of the time. “Momentary Lie” uses strum and chord progressions that remind me of a few Phil Ochs tunes. “The Magic Within You” has a rhythm and arrangement like a George Harrison solo outtake. “Unusual Day” gives off a very hazy, dreamy vibe clearly under a lot of influence from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. As common as these techniques and devices are (and were even moreso when this was recorded), I don’t mean to dismiss Lewin for having used them. The similarities aren’t overwhelming. Lewin balances these influences to make a record that may give you the same feeling as the ones mentioned, but its ability to evoke those emotions is itself a victory for the artists.
There is some variety in songwriting. On “King of Queens” we hear Lewin playing riffs more like Chuck Berry than Bob Dylan, with a heavier rhythm. In lyrics we can look at “Back Home, To You” where a man is on a train eagerly awaiting to return to his lover. Both of these are considerably happier than something like “Soul of the Lady” which, both in its rhythm and its refrain of “the soul of the lady makes me cry” is a dramatic lament, and yet the vocal style and production effects place them all fairly close together on the emotional spectrum.
Whether the uniform style helps or hurts the album is a puzzle that I don’t think can be solved. The first time I listened to this album I felt like it was all very monotone, each track having the same feeling and style of the last and the next. The execution was just so similar I couldn’t get past it. On my second listen, however, I was able to notice the difference in the style between songs, and was irritated that it had been masked the first time. However, the songs work as units separate of their album anyway. “King of Queens” had the promise to be a real hard rock tune but I don’t think that would’ve made it necessarily better. The big downside of the uniform is that it can get repetitive. On one listening I simply turned off the album three tracks early because it had started to feel dragged out.
That said, I still highly recommend Am I Really Here All Alone. It does a fantastic job at capturing the calm but strong melancholy with exceptional accuracy. It’s not an album you’d want to listen to over and over again, but that’s because of its power. When I hear it I feel like the depressed 15 year old lying in bed listening to Highway 61 Revisited until high school finally ended — and anything that can make me feel something that strong has merit and is worth your attention.