The build-up for Never Closer has been intense, in part because of UK Somgwriter and Broadcaster Tom Robinson’s introduction and updates on the album’s Pledge Music site, but also through the impact of Raphael’s intensely confessional poem “I Come From Ireland”, released as an early single and reviewed in our Saturday Sampler here. Would the album live up to expectations? Could a collection of 12 tracks stand comparison with the first?

Providing an intimate, autobiographical portrait, Never Closer is a collection of contrasts. Testaments to love sit alongside stories of Raphael’s self-confessed “messy life”. Learn a lesson or two, if you will, or just acknowledge the ups and downs, the pain and the glory, and the life-affirming courage that it takes to put it all out there.

With the simplest of arrangements, “We’ll All Get Together Again” reminds us that the measure of a man can be counted in his friends. Painting a picture of camaraderie we all crave – unconditional understanding, patient support and the knowledge that someone cares, even if it’s been a while – Raphael draws us into the “circle in the wind and the rain” where we “sing to the sun and the sun will come again”. Time for us to get off Facebook and go visit people, maybe?

There’s a romance to the story of a small-town boy who makes it out of there. “Kiltermon” immortalises Raphael’s small town roots in County Antrim, exploring the tension between the young man’s desire to move away and his later reflection that it will “always be home to me”. As Raphael told the story for the BBC’s mixtape with Lauren Laverne, Kiltermon is the place where his older brother, out of concern for Raphael’s moral development, took a nail to his treasured copy of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together”. This is a track born from Raphael’s “disconnect between how I found meaning in the world, and the background I came from” that first projected him into the London music scene.

Covering a classic blues/rock track may be an act of confidence or madness. Or it could be a testament to a genuine connection with the music and it’s life-long influence. Raphael’s version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” expands the meaning behind the lyrics, as only a consummate storyteller can, while the stripped-back arrangement provides an Elvis-meets-Johnny-Cash country gospel flavour. Deep and resonant, this is definitely a track worthy of its provenance.

Flipping effortlessly into folk-mode, “Kerry” brings a timeless song of care and devotion. Even without the acclamation “Kerry, I love you”, the tone and tempo can only be drawn from the heart. Built around ancient Celtic rhythms, with occasional unexpected glimpses of synths, topped with the warmth of Raphael’s vocals, this is a song to waltz you into an Irish romance.

Love songs come in many guises. Recalling a time when a relationship nearly came to an end, “The Touch Of Our Hands” is pure 60s pop, complete with tambourines and backing singers. Kick off your shoes and dance along, secure in the knowledge that love wins in the end. The girl who stood Raphael up all those years ago changed her mind, and turned out to be the love of his life. Isn’t that sweet?

And here she is. Rose stuck by Raphael, in his words “against all sensible judgement”. “Rose” is his song for their love. The final a capella “she says Ray, don’t you worry…it hasn’t happened yet” brings it home and makes it real. The emotional ones among us will no doubt have a tear in their eye and a lump in their throat. The rest of us can pretend it’s a speck of dust.

Ready for a blast of rock and roll? Providing a contrast in mood and tempo, “Feet On The Floor” brings the party. This is the sound of musicians having fun; Raphael and his band are in their element and it shows. But…but…isn’t this a break-up song? “I’m walking away without a sound, except for you closing the door”. Take a listen – what do you think?

“Frankie” opens with softly-strummed guitar, melting into a fascination of light-psychedelic siren-song “a fragile young moment in time”. Raphael puts his lifetime in music to good use, offering glimpses of genres past to support new stories. The contrast is exquisite, as is the harmony placed way back in the mix. Complex and alluring, this is a track to play on repeat, in a quiet space, through headphones.

Back to a country/folk vibe,“Bob Dylan’s Dream” tells of simpler times long gone, gambling on losses with the confidence of youth. Returning to the theme of friendship, with a reflective air “the thought never hit that the one road we travelled would shatter and split”, we’re reminded of people once close who’ve drifted away. Raphael’s vocals sit lightly on beautifully layered arrangements, providing authenticity to the story and an urge to pick up the phone and call an old friend.

Dark and mean “Live The Game” draws Never Closer to a close, melding gritty rock guitar with soaring strings and Celtic snippets. Listen long enough and all of Raphael’s musical influences will go by. Occasionally Americana, alt-country and blues, “Live The Game” is full-on and assertive. A challenge to live life “while our lights are brightest, while our eyes can see”.

Finally, “Coda”. Whether sung for Rose, for his kids, or for the love of music, this is Raphael’s 49 second affirmation. We should all aim to sing for this for someone today.

Taking its name from Seamus Heaney’s “When All The Others Were Away At Mass”, the album speaks to closeness and intimacy through the sound of friend’s voices joined in song, music as community, and a man, telling his story for no other reason than because he has the poetry in his soul to do so.

This album was a race against time. Since Raphael’s 2016 diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, his dream of making an album with his youngest son Louis (Slides, The Spare Room) took on new urgency. His old friend Tom Robinson (The Tom Robinson Band) was also keen to record a definitive Raphael Doyle album, but Raphael himself was reluctant to “make an record just for the sake of it” or for his health to become a dominant factor. Once the award-winning Anglo-Irish musician/producer Gerry Diver (Youth, Van Morrison, Christy Moore, Shane McGowan) offered to come on board, the whole project clicked into place.

Others who stepped up to lend a hand include recording engineer Daniel Moyler (Brody Dalle, FKA Twigs, Björk) who oversaw additional sessions with Louis at Miloco studios; mastering legend Barry Grint (Prince, Madonna, David Bowie, Radiohead etc) who sprinkled his sonic magic over the mixes; and Martin Goldschmidt – boss of leading indie label Cooking Vinyl – who offered to rush-release the album.

Raphael Doyle’s Never Closer was released on the 27th January 2017 on Cooking Vinyl. Get your copy here and follow Raphael Doyle on:

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