Three little letters, one small word – ‘Ink;. Anthony Toner’s seventh album says it all – a perfectly formed collection of personal memoir, reminiscences from a time of innocence and confidences.

‘Ink’ is a rare beauty. Childhood, youth, truth, growing pains, grown up games, love, loss, rejection, nostalgia, reflection – life’s entire emotional spectrum squeezed through a prism and the result is possibly Toner’s best album to date – his seventh full album.

The Anthony Toner canon combined must surely make him one of Northern Ireland’s finest singer-songwriters – an elder statesman of song, if such an accolade existed.

With all the wisdom scrolled up over the decades, Toner casts a warm and wry eye over memories that embrace loved ones lost in one way or another, and a cold eye across our political ineptitude.

Despite this maturing and mastery, ‘Ink’ is still trademark Toner, combining the jaunty upbeat rhythm and rhyme, the hidden jocularity and humour with warmth, wit and unmistakable candour.

There are the familiar themes, the descriptive lyrics rich in imagery and ideals, the vignettes delivered with narrative effects, the distinctive contributions of long-time collaborators John McCullough on piano, Clive Culbertson on bass, drums and vocals that combined create that unique Toner sound. Yet somehow Ink is a little bit different – all the familiar, distinctive Toner trademarks are there, but it’s like something has changed, something is different – a foray into the metaphysical, through the looking glass of the past.

Maybe that seems a bit ‘out there’. I suppose what I mean to say is this – the three instrumentals on ‘Ink’, say more without words with emotionally evocative melody – check out ‘The Shepherd’s Daughter’, ‘Cotton Anniversary’ and ‘The River Road’.

A river runs through it – starting with ‘Let The River’, where the tinkling of the old piano almost takes on the mantle of a character, the river cleanses and washes away all stains and pains, and all else in between, to the penultimate ‘The River Road’; a meandering, rippling instrumental.

‘The Alphabet’ is more profound than the title suggests. A is for Alzheimer’s. In an album this rich in reflection and reminiscence, drawing on themes of childhood and innocence; unconditional love and parental indulgence, Toner takes us through a personal A to Z, both deeply moving and glibly amusing – from the opening lines:

When I hug my father we hold on tight. If he forgets who I am well that’s alright. A is for Alzheimer’s.

D is for Democracy – Ponder your choice and place your votes. You get the same old knives at the same old throats.

The next three tunes link together as a sort of trilogy in my view. These are Anthony Toner, poet and lyricist, at his best. ‘Sleep Like A Soldier’, more spoken than sung, is rich in visions of the past, a packaged retrospective of combing childhood streets at dusk – dim lights, memories flood by as vivid in lyrical form as if they’d only just happened. ‘The Night Prayer To Saint Augustine’ is outstanding lyrically, from morphine induced-visionary episodes to sleeping with a prayer, like a drug, under the tongue. From there a trip back to childhood and a square eyed boy guzzling on a sofa diet of seventies detective and cowboy TV fodder.

Toner’s descriptive tenacity and turn of phrase is unmatched frankly. ‘The Candidate’, topped and tailed with a carnival-esque twist, with sharp and incisive wit relays the tale from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, witnessing the pantomime of political candidacy for the first time. Genius.

These are each unique, wonderful and wistful tunes. ‘Still Your Man’, ‘Light From The Stars’. Simple yet profound.

Sometimes the light from the stars is too late to reach us

to ‘Sometimes The Night (Goes On For Days)’ say so much about the great big questions about the nature of things, in carefully packaged poetic melodies – lyrical ballads you could say.

‘Exit Wounds’ is also excellent. A kind of spoken word narrative – a story about the one and only time twelve-year-old Anthony held a gun – one of those stark, childhood memories that just cannot become undone. Listen to ‘Exit Wounds’; as potent a piece as ever was strung together.

The closing tune, ‘Photos’, seems somewhat experimental and yet unsettlingly meaningful. It is difficult to de-cypher; the tin-tin piano, out of tune, reminiscent of a dusty old church hall, some blast from the past. The voice, at first barely audible in the background, slightly muffled, breathing, slightly laboured, then laughter, slow at first – erupts.

An upbeat end. It makes me smile but what’s that all about? I’d really like to know what it means, along with the album cover? “E51” scribbled along the top. A date? A ‘note to self’ or whatever can it be? A photograph, torn and worn. I am reminded of a lyric from another of my favourites:

Long ago it must be. I have a photograph. Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left to me.

I wonder what it can mean. Although I think I have an ink-ling.

The official launch of ‘Ink’ will be at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday 23rd April with Ciaran Lavery and Eilidh Patterson.

Other dates and venues include:

Saturday 13th May 2017

Thursday 20th April 2017 Strule Arts Centre Omagh Northern Ireland
Sunday 23rd April 2017 Lyric Theatre Belfast Northern Ireland
Friday 5th May 2017 Island Arts Centre Lisburn Northern Ireland
Saturday 13th May 2017 Ardhowen Theatre Enniskillen Northern Ireland
Thursday 18th May Flowerfield Arts Centre Portstewart Northern Ireland
Saturday 27th May 2017 Braid Arts Centre Ballymena Northern Ireland
Saturday 3rd June 2017 Ranfurly House Dungannon Northern Ireland
Saturday 10th June 2017 Down Arts Centre Downpatrick Northern Ireland
Friday 16th June 2017 Seamus Heaney Homeplace Bellaghy Northern Ireland