The sound of a thousand drunken nights slouched over a dive bar pours from the music of American songwriter Mishka Shubaly.

It’s the sound of the best stories from your worst nights. Playing live, it’s just Shubaly and his guitar frequenting those bars that were once his downfall. He has battled alcoholism and other means of self-flagellation to return a sober, successful songwriter, ultramarathon runner and author and teacher of writing at Yale. Not so much a rags-to-riches tale, more a story of redemption and triumph over the darker recesses of our minds.

Shubaly led a life of drunken debauchery. Many people go through that phase. For the majority it is a short, youthful, exuberant time. Other people seem to stretch it out for longer than that – much longer. Living your life that way is fun and liberating for a short while. Longer periods immersed in this lifestyle can have a much more profound effect on you than just your bank balance.

Every bad decision, every drunkenly spilled pint, every nameless pill are laid bare in Shubaly’s music, music that strips back the skin and exposes the blackened soul underneath. That’s not to say that the music is bleak. Far from it; Shubaly’s songs are full of self-deprecating humour and honest analysis of his poor life decisions. For those with a certain mindset, there is always humour in tragedy and it seems that he has a talent for extracting and magnifying that humour.

The new album, When We Were Animals, was released at the start of May. The signature growl and sombre themes are still prevalent, yet there is a greater depth to the sound and a sense that this is someone who is actually enjoying creating a record. Could the emotionally stunted Mishka Shubaly actually be maturing as an artist? Considering the life changes he has made since getting sober, it’s not unreasonable to think that there may now be a somewhat different outlook on life.

After years of abusing his body, it’s frankly amazing that this man can now claim to be an ultramarathon runner, yet Shubaly has completed numerous 50-mile races and even a 100-kilometre race. This inspirational transformation is reflected in his music, particularly on the new album. ‘Death in Greenpoint’ was written by the old Mishka and newly-written songs still focus on failure and regret, but there is a reflection in the approach to making and recording music, a feeling of finding some joy in a process that should always have been enjoyable.

Listening to When We Were Animals, the redemption story shines through in the production and in the musical and emotional intensity. The exuberant rendition of ‘World’s Smallest Violin’ and the comedic sensibilities of the chorus belies the troubling subject matter. When it comes to ‘Never Drinking Again’, the delivery is dour and morose, a feeling of waking up with a hangover and a black eye. However, this song is not about the false promise made by a drunk the morning after. It’s an upbeat message from a man who has escaped the depths of alcoholism and risen above it to create a new life for himself.

These songs do a good job of summing up Mishka Shubaly. A man of contradictions. There really is no one else quite like him.

Mark McIntosh

Mishka Shubaly plays the The University Arms on 13 June. Tickets are £8. mishkashubaly.com

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