Any new music from the mighty John Michell is usually something to look ahead to wanting to listen to. Through his years of playing, either in his Lonely Robot solo project or with one of the several bands he contributes to, which includes Arena, It Bites and Frost*, as well as playing in Fish’s touring band, he has evolved almost into a one-man army, both as a multi-instrumentalist and as a producer. He’s also a label owner, having an interest in White Star which focusses mainly though not exclusively on prog bands. Probably only Neal Morse can come close when it comes to being as prolific in terms of keeping so many plates spinning without any risk of them crashing to earth.
Lonely Robot was originally only intended to be a three album project, with the spaceman then put to rest, but fourth album Feelings Are Good (2020) followed after the label assured him Lonely Robot was now a ‘brand’. And, whereas the first Lonely Robot albums offered up wistful, sci-fi tinged observations on the state of things, with Feelings, Mitchell claimed he ‘had an axe to grind’ and moved away from spacial imagery towards lyrical content which was something more grounded and personal.
Much like Mitchell’s latest album, A Model Life, which is ‘brimming with frustration at the state of things’, with every song having at its core Mitchell’s feelings of ‘being pissed off about something or other’, which included a relationship break-up and the loss of a few friends who’d died. He claimed, ,making A Model Life was very much a lifeline and, indeed, a wake-up call at the end of what’s been a personally very challenging last couple of years’.
As a result, it’s a harder-hitting album than any other in the Lonely Robot series, an album which, he says, ‘has a little more grit under its fingernails than any of its predecessors’, though it also contains pieces suggesting emotional vulnerability, like Rain Kings and In Memoriam …’like my father before me I chose to look away, emotionally broken by the stricture of the day … it’s the only English way to be’ – which truly tug at the heartstrings.
Title track A Model Life takes a swipe at the notion of the idealised life as portrayed by the media, with ‘everything looking pure and white like an Enya album’. He asks, ‘whatever happened to the forever after and off into the sunset?’ It’s a powerful track, a highlight on the album with the message that life doesn’t always work out as you might want it to. Similarly, Recalibrating is all about putting your life back together after a relationship breaks down: ’I’m trying to find myself again, recalibrating till the end’. On Feelings Are Good, Mitchell performed ‘Grief Is The Price Of Love’, where he sings ‘no matter how far you run, it isn’t far enough’. Maybe he should have saved it for this album.
On the track Digital God Machine, Mitchell reserves real ire, though, for ‘keyboard warriors everywhere in their bedrooms’, who ‘hide and take aim at people they dislike’; people he describes as ‘f*ck*ng morons’, and goes on to say ’and if you want to taste your medicine, I’ll make sure you get what you deserve’.
But what particularly stands out on this album, aside from the quality of the music, is the guitar playing. After agreeing, on Frost’s* Day And Age, there’d be a limit on the amount of guitar, on A Model Life Mitchell has gone back to what he does best and offers some gorgeous examplars of guitar playing, especially on tracks like the darkly euphoric Starlit Stardust and Species In Transition. John Mitchell’s never featured in any list of the top guitar players in prog, and is usually a mile behind players like Petrucci and Hackett, but his touch is exemplary. There are no overlong solos and no guitar shredding attempting a thousand notes a minute. Every note he plays is deserving of its inclusion in the song.
Mitchell has a real flair for melody, with the songs on A Model Life being melodic prog combined with top notch musicianship and production. This could well be the album which tops everything Lonely Robot has previously done.