Greg MacPherson has been making atmospheric folk albums heavy on potential and light on widespread appeal for 14 years. There are many possible reasons for this, his almost non-existent touring schedule and staunchly independent ethos among them. Nonetheless, MacPherson is a tremendously talented and sincere songwriter, and if he's cursed by anything, it is mostly his own competency.
MacPherson never writes a bad song–he simply surrounds great songs with good songs in a way that makes the good ones seem mediocre. This pattern has been apparent in every one of his eight releases thus far, and while 2010's Mr. Invitation is not the flawless masterpiece to break the cycle (an accomplishment of which MacPherson is absolutely capable), it is a very, very good album, rich in theme and light on wasted time.
The album starts out with the lead single "First Class", an upbeat tale of falling in love with a dangerous woman and waking up in some grey French field / with nothing but the clothes on his back. The song serves to set up many of the album's recurring preoccupations: geography, displacement, and alcohol. Even when describing the landscape of another continent, MacPherson is still spiritually referencing the oppressive prairies and sprawling skies of Manitoba, which hang over and inform every second of Mr. Invitation.
Sprawling one-verse meditations like "Travelling Style", while still far less derivative or predictable than much of what currently passes as "folk" music, disrupt the album's accumulated momentum and flirt dangerously with self-indulgence. This tendency to place the slowest of slow-burners in the middle of an otherwise rousing album has plagued many of MacPherson's previous efforts as well (think "California" on Night Flares or "Concrete" on Good Times Coming Back Again).
The proceeding title track, however, is an absolute killer. "Mr. Invitation" represents the pinnacle of what MacPherson can and has achieved in his career–his voice is all power and confidence, the instrumentation is expertly constrained, and above all, the lyrics and their delivery are wonderfully morose. When MacPherson half-growls, half whispers "I've got two friends / they're my best friends / Take me to the water and hold me down / Mr. Invitation / Ms. Suffocation / Set me on fire and put me out," you can't help but devote your full attention to this man and his strange charisma.
The rest of Mr. Invitation continues in typically frustrating bouts of genius and relative mediocrity. "Backflow" and "Broken Dreams" are each a tad too heavy on the brood and the mope, while "West End" and "Visitor" are tightly executed and lyrically exact. The latter in particular stands out as a stellar album closer in a discography composed of stellar album closers, as well as representing a welcome convergence of Mr. Invitation's otherwise conspicuously subdued politicism. The album ends with MacPherson assuming the familiar voice of a weary traveler, and although his lyrical humility is endearing, it is also a tremendous understatement of his progress and potential: "You've heard this story all before and my own version's not much better / An hour in the spotlight, an evening in a road, a minute in a line."