Call it a sea change, or maybe just a turning of the tides, but Alan Doyle seems to be onto something great. The singer is best known as the face and voice of Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, but with the release of Boy on Bridge—his first solo album after almost twenty years with the band—Doyle is proving his hand at something a little different, and a lot more eclectic.
From rousing, rocking anthems to exuberant living (“I’ve Seen A Little”) to sincere, tender love songs like piano ballad “Love While Love’s Awake,” to soulful country crooning like that on “Northern Plain,” Doyle dips into a musical buffet of genres on this record. With such a varied mix of songs that a Canadian Press article labelled the album “restlessly eclectic,” Doyle’s stylistic departures—such as the surf rock–tinged “My Day”—reveal his unexpected and delightful capacity to be a musical chameleon.
Boy on Bridge is such a happy record. Even the first song, “I’m Sorry,” which plays like a song of a man seeking forgiveness for a wrong he has committed against his lover (“And so that’s how stories like this usually start / Fast-forward to a broken heart”), is populated by fast strumming on the guitar, a foot-tapping beat, and an irresistibly catchy hook: “You can’t un-ring a bell / You can’t un-tell a story / You can’t un-break a heart / I’m sorry, I’m sorry / If there’s a chance in hell / For a moment’s glory / I’d be so glad to tell you / I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
This is a song that is persistent in its quest for forgiveness, and the decisive strumming and medley of instruments—from banjo to violin to mandolin to drums—along with the honesty of the lyrics, make you feel like hope is around the corner: “And so it seems as though our song is sung / It’s over now, what’s done is done / But if it takes a while and you remain / Partial to a broken man / You and I might make amends.”
The next track, “I’ve Seen a Little,” features some good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll riffs and a message to boldly go forth and live life to the fullest:
It ain’t what you’ve done, it’s what you’re gonna do.
It ain’t where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going to.
I’m sorry St Peter, I don’t mean to complain,
But can you give it just a minute before you call my name?
Nothing worse, nothing hurts like a stone unturned
And I’ve got candles left to burn
And lessons left to learn . . .
I’ve been over the moon and down on my luck.
I’ve seen a little but it ain’t enough.
Been down to the bottom and all the way up.
I’ve seen a little and it ain’t enough.
After the final drumbeat on the track, you can hear Doyle laugh and say, “Felt great, right?”
Just three tracks in, he switches up his style again for “My Day,” a mellow, surf rock–inspired song that seems to capture the essence of a perfect day. It would be a surprise not to hear this song streaming from beachside radios this summer:
I’m not looking for a path of gold.
I’m not hoping for a perfect moment.
I’ve got a hand I can’t help holding in the air.
Let the sun shine, or let it rain.
I’m walking in good times, come what may.
I’ve got a heartbeat, and it’s mine to keep.
No one can take it away.
This is my day today.
His engaging storytelling talent is evident in the songs “Where the Nightingales Sing” (with guest vocals by Kelly Archer), a tale of secret palace lovers, and “Testify,” a rollicking bluegrass track co-written with his friend Russell Crowe (yes, that one) where an encounter between a bandit sentenced to hang and a preacher who wants to save his soul reveals that the former has one last trick up his sleeve: “Take me down to the river / Preacher take me by the hand / Take me down to the river, mend the soul of a broken man / Drown me in forgiveness, wash these bloodied hands of mine / Take me down to one last river, Lord, let me testify!”
When the preacher and jail guards comply with a doomed man’s last wishes, however, things don’t quite go the way they should:
Take me to the river banks, two guards and a chaplain.
Moonlight shines on the holy tides
And my prayers have been answered.
Make my sodden walk to Jesus, all piety and grace.
The guards release my shackles…but they cannot read my face.
The deepest breath that I could take as I plunged under the water.
The chaplain had the kindest ways, but he could have been a whole lot smarter.
You can guess at where the story goes from there.
The album also addresses matters of the heart, from the hopefulness of love (“Love While Love’s Awake”) to dealing with heartbreak (“Break It Slow,” with Holly Williams, and soulful country melody “Northern Plains”)
Boy on Bridge is undoubtedly an album with a vast range of influences behind its creation. But in his heart, Doyle will forever be a son of the Rock; and his final track reflects this loyalty to Newfoundland with the song “Where I Belong,” sung a cappella. A bittersweet ode to his roots, Doyle on this track reflects on the grief of leaving, experienced by those left behind:
Jenny said goodbye this afternoon.
As far as I can tell, she can’t bear the goodbye evenings
Or the morning afters of farewell.
She said, Here you are, another one, to whose back I’m saying cheers.
It’s like a death in the family
And it’s been going on for years.
But it also embraces the idea of leaving home while still keeping the idea of home alive in your heart: “So I’ll cast my leaving shadow / And I’ll be Canadian / But distance won’t decide what matters / To the hard rock’s loving son / And when I’m thinking of St. John’s, I’ll bring her closer with a song / I don’t know where I’m going, but I know where I belong.”
With Boy on Bridge, it is evident that Alan Doyle belongs in the canon of great Canadian performers.
02. I’ve Seen a Little
03. My Day
04. Where the Nightingales Sing
06. Break It Slow
07. Love While Love’s Awake
08. Light the Way
09. Northern Plains
10. Lover’s Hand
11. Perfect Excuse
12. The Rules Will All Be Broken
13. Where I Belong
For more information on purchasing the album, tour details, or information about Great Big Sea, check out alandoylemusic.ca, greatbigsea.com and follow Alan on Twitter: @alanthomasdoyle.