Michael Hoffman does country and the blues tremendous justice on the timelessness of “Blue Skies on Both Sides”. A completely immersive experience he sings with so much pathos and soul that it becomes impossible to look away. His commanding vocals have a tremendous presence to them and the delivery possesses so much passion. Storytelling ties the whole of the album together for he sings literally straight from the heart, whether it deals with the birth of his first daughter (on Lyra) or the state of the world in the middle of an international pandemic (on The Price). Arrangements are sparse yet precise in terms of their overall execution.
References abound throughout the whole of the album. An obvious indebtedness to Johnny Cash runs through, as Michael Hoffman’s vocals feel quite similar in the best way possible. Country does serve as the main focus of the sound with a nod towards a bluesy folk quality. The storytelling also owes a bit to Bob Dylan’s impressive ability to create an entire world one so completely real. For the poignancy, he incorporates a bit of Leonard Cohen’s thought-provoking spirit to great effect, even directly inspiring a few of the pieces.
“The Mark” starts the album off in a lovely, listless sort of way. Graceful guitar and fantastically restrained fiddle work punctuate the power of his words. Distortion with a dead-eyed stare defines the rollicking wild heavy blues of “Dead Gone” which is delivered with an animalistic flair. Communal in terms of how it evolves the poignant title track “Blue Skies on Both Sides” explores the unnecessary division that exists in the world. Sprawling and ambitious “Separated” takes the topic of division further, showing the chasm between the haves and have-nots in a way that has a visceral quality. By far the highlight of the album, there’s a mournful aspect whose memory lasts long after the piece has ended. Quite spacious in its pacing “The Price” offers a bit of soul-searching in the midst of a global pandemic, doing so in such a careful way.
On “High Times” he gets a bit loose, letting a delirious arrangement point to the drawbacks of being too wild. Another highlight comes from the stripped-down intimacy of “The Miracle”. As a father myself, I recognize the sound of the heartbeat that the ultrasound provides. So beautiful, he does so much with only a few tastefully chosen elements. Going for a playful attitude is the carefree glee of “Sanctuary”. “Long Way From Home” brings a psychedelic spirit into the fray, with lyrics that possess their own sly sleight of hand. Neatly summarizing all that came before is the meditative hymn of “Four”.
“Blue Skies on Both Sides” shows off Michael Hoffman’s undeniable chops as he explores a life lived to the fullest, in a world he so clearly and vividly understands.