Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s. McGill is exactly the kind of durable, skillful singer/songwriter who might’ve made a solid name for himself back in those halcyon days. Instead, in the 2010s, he joins the legions who release good music to an indifferent world, not actually as propped up by the endless supply of free digital music as proponents keep telling us is going to happen, any day now, just wait and see. And okay, so I’m especially disgruntled because I just today saw someone still passing along Cory Doctorow’s idiotic “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity” meme with a straight face, as if being merely one of a zillion artists throwing free content onto the web isn’t being dreadfully obscure in a whole new way.
Anyway. McGill does a nice job here, coming across as simultaneously weary and engaged, while the song smartly transforms from an ambling piano ballad into something more soulful, complete with spiffy horn charts. The title alone prompts a bit of a surprised smile, but despite the opening line, McGill himself has noted that the song is not actually about health insurance, but about how it feels to be an American in this insecure moment in history. And while that may not actually feel too good, I can’t help but be buoyed by McGill’s subtly spirited performance. He’s got one of those rounded voices that can get a little blurry if too reverbed, but we get a good balance in the mix, which stays generally crisp (horn charts will do that for you), and gives him a chance to stretch a bit—I like both his falsetto reaches and then, in particular, that stirring tone he achieves on the lyrics “when the house was on fire” at 1:42. I think we sometimes forget that half of a singer/songwriter’s job is singing, and maybe sometimes some of them forget that too. Not Mr. McGill.
“American Health Insurance” is from the album Gallows Etiquette, released a couple of weeks ago, its title taken from a Charles Simic poem. This is McGill’s sixth album, and his first after a trio of releases with him fronting a band called What Army. He was featured in that time frame here on Fingertips back in October 2009, for the wonderful song “Madeline, Every Girl.” Note that the Chicago-based McGill is also a member of the band Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.