It’s a peculiar injustice that in this age of omni-availability the work of a singer-songwriter as gifted as David Ackles should languish out of print for so long. While reissue labels unearth so- called lost classics every week, Ackles’ truly great first album has been unavailable for a decade.
Born in Rock Island, Illinois in 1937, Ackles was ancient for a ’60s rock debutante, the wrong side of 30 when Elektra first released this album in 1968. at may have been a factor in its commercial under-achievement at the time, but less so than Ackles’ dogged avoidance of virtually all contemporary trends. Only the baleful blues of the opening song, ‘ The Road to Cairo’, anchors the record firmly in its era. From then on it’s a subtly different time and place, where a rock band performs Ackles’ piano-based musical theatre vignettes peopled by a cast of lost souls. Even among Elektra’s singer-songwriter roster – including such singular talents as Tim Buckley and Fred Neil – Ackles was in a category by himself: the cover photo of the out of focus singer glancing sidelong through a cracked window pane a fitting image of a musical outsider.
Most of Ackles’ songs are understated narrative miniatures with a deep emotional undertow. In ‘Down River’ an ex con meets a former sweetheart, asks her why she didn’t write when he was locked away, and greets with a stoic “time’s change” the news she’s now with his old school friend. Within that simple sequence of events Ackles communicates a profound sense of time lost, the utter irretrievability of the past, set to a stately piano chord sequence and a melody the young Neil Diamond would have killed for. e more cryptic ‘What A Happy Day’ and ‘Lotus Man’ seem to offer critical comment on the hippies – “we’ll ring our world with flowers, while the other world decays.”
The six-plus minutes of ‘His Name Is Andrew’, meanwhile, point to the more ambitious style Ackles adopted for later albums. Following the titular Andrew through the loss, rediscovery and loss again of faith in God, it’s like Herman Hesse set to eddying organ, cymbals, and a tolling bell. Martin Carthy picked up on the arid spiritual desolation, reimaging the song in the English folk idiom in the early 1970s. A shorter, guitar based companion piece, The Grave of God, is one of five rarities added to the CD version of this reissue.
Though The Hollies, Julie Driscoll and Spooky Tooth were among the artists joining Carthy in finding the album a rich source of material, David Ackles made little impact on release and was swiftly deleted when reissued in the ’90s and early noughties. This US only reissue, then, is a cause for celebration, albeit marked with a tinge of sadness that such an abundantly talented artist as David Ackles, who died in 1996 aged 62, should still be so little known.