What does it sound like?:
Ben Watt’s new album opens with minimalistic piano, rigid beats from a drum machine and the line “Nineteen years old, life in front of you, everything on hold, feels like you’re balanced on a wire”. It’s bleak and doomy, and those expecting a repeat of the 70s folk rock vibe “Fever Dream” tapped into are in for a shock. There are no retro fittings and no guitar solos. The sound palette is piano, drum machines or kit drums distilled down to rim shots and the odd kick, double bass, synths and lots of samples from an online resource called Freesound.org, and for a while at any rate stays cold, bleak and quite beautiful. There seems to be a despairing vibe over the first few tracks, looking back, revisiting old ghosts, old places now changed beyond recognition (and we’re talking abut Hull here, where Ben and Tracey met at university). The first few plays I didn’t get it, missing the patchouli scented feel of this album’s predecessor which ticked about every one of my boxes, but Ben sounds restless here and clearly wanted to move on and the music opens up and sound more organic with each play. It’s deeply soulful and optimistic under the bleak initial first impressions. “Figures in the landscape” is a more conventional rock number but again with the samples and synths and layered harmonies providing a coat of frosting. “Knife in the drawer” harks back to the songs on “Hendra” but again with the sonic grain and texture which marks this album out as different provided by the deliberately limited soundscape which turns out to be more 3D the more you listen. The story is once again a retrospective look at love, friendship, decisions made and regretted, close to nature and a nip in the air. “I’m fine if you’re asking, I’m greyer but settled” he says. Why don’t we believe him?
“Irene” was released early so I was already familiar with it, and is another retrospective look at friendship with a little more warmth from the saturated sound of an old Wurlitzer piano and the surprising entrance of a resonator guitar as we hear about smoky clubs and faces in the crowd, though, of course, the clubs are closed down now. “Lat night I walked there again – the neon city always ageless and unsung, the bars spilled out into the street, the music loud, different faces in the crowd”. The following track has a sing along radio friendly chorus but read the words – ”When you find it, how you need it, when you lose it, how you feel it”. It’s an earwig though and the first one you find yourself singing in the shower.
It’s worth mentioning Ben’s voice here – understandably in Everything but the Girl he was, I suspect, slightly insecure taking the mic for a song after Tracey Thorn, who, to my ears, has one of the finest voices from these shores. But here he is confident and varied in delivery, so on “Hand” he’s hitting high sustained notes with ease but with a fragility which it took me a while to place, then I got it. You know how Johnny Cash sings on the American recordings – perfectly on pitch, but almost frail sounding – like that, and the delivery is perfect for the song. It’s hard to divine the exact meaning, but lines such as “I went and hid myself, thinking maybe that I could rid myself of all those thoughts of worthlessness” don’t leave much to the imagination. Heavy stuff. Dust in the air for this one.
The final song, “Festival Song” has Ben kicking back and relaxing, “I’m fuzzy inside from this tray of beers and I’ve ponced my first fag in ten years”. He deserves it, and the first major key of the record gives us a more optimistic lift as it ends. The last line says “Let every song I sing ring so true”. They do, they do.
What does it all *mean*?
This is an inventive, complex and affecting album which grows in impact with each listen, beautiful in the way Beth Gibbons/Rustin’ Man’s masterpiece “Out of season” is – frail melodies, samples, synths which continue to haunt as the final track ends….just gorgeous.
Goes well with…
I’m listening in front of the fire after a walk in the cold evening air which seems to suit it perfectly. Too early for a peaty one but that would probably go well with it too.
Might suit people who like…
I hesitate to say EBTG fans as this is nothing like them. Lovers of the downbeat, the reflective, the darker side will find things to like here. It’s not a party record, this is one for solo listening