Dan Penn is a national treasure. He may not be the household name he should be, but everyone’s been moved by his and Chips Moman’s “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman,” or his and Spooner Oldham’s “I’m Your Puppet.” Living on Mercy offers an occasion to celebrate Penn’s genius with new music.
Penn co-wrote most of these songs with some of his closest collaborators, including Wayne Carson, Gary Nicholson, Spooner Oldham, Carson Whitsett, Will McFarlane, Bucky Lindsey, Buzz Cason, and The Cate Brothers. Backed by Clayton Ivey on keyboards, Will McFarlane on guitar, Michael Rhodes on bass, Milton Sledge on drums, and a hot horn section (Charles Rose on trombone, Doug Moffet on tenor and baritone sax, Drew White on trumpet), Penn lays down a lush soul vibe.
The album opens with the buoyant title track that floats along Ivey’s B3, Penn’s vocals and the background vocals circling higher and higher around each other, weaving a warm, lush soundscape. By the end of this song, we’ve already been transported by the music, anticipating what comes next.
“See You in My Dreams,” a languorous soul ballad, evokes the steamy dreamscape of living with the memory of a lost love (“But I’ll be alright, if I know tonight / That I’ll see you in my dreams”). The Oldham-Penn co-write “I Do” rides along a sparkling country soul groove that would be at home on a Glen Campbell or Ronnie Milsap album, while the Cason-Penn co-write “What It Takes to Be True” opens on a Percy Sledge-like vibe from “Take Time to Know Her” and blossoms into a haunting reverie that features a number of unexpected musical turns. “I Didn’t Hear That Coming” rides along a funky gospel vibe before sliding into a lounge jazz refrain, while “Down on Music Row” mimics the lonely blues of looking to find your way in Nashville, with “down,” in Penn’s crafty genius, cutting both ways.
It would have been easy to write this review in one sentence: there are very few more perfect albums than Dan Penn’s albums, so pick this one up, put it on, and let the music wash over you. Penn knows how to reach those dark recesses of our souls with just the right notes of feel-good music and just the right lyrics that evoke the tentative ways we fall in love, the ragged despair of loss, the wistful regret over missed connections, and the joyful promise of lusty celebrations.