noah’s misery

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Posted 27 Oct 2009 in Music, Reviews

My impression – I may be wrong – is that the new Noah and The Whale record has underwhelmed quite a few people. It feels like the fans who liked the upbeat arrangements of their debut album are bewildered by the introverted, melancholic seam running through The First Days Of Spring. Equally, the people who understandably took against the contrived, Wes Anderson-influenced trappings of the band’s image and first record have not been convinced by the earnest, mature stylings they’ve followed it up with. Accompanying the new album with a full-length DVD film may be their biggest mistake; a brave, admirable artistic endeavour which nevertheless feels desperately pretentious.

Anyway – as you’ll know if you’ve spent some serious time with The First Days of Spring, it’s an excellent record; a big improvement on Peaceful The World Lays Me Down and a really rewarding, emotional account of what sounds like a pretty fucking awful year in the life of the band’s songwriter, Charlie Fink – whose break-up with Laura Marling doesn’t just dominate this set of songs, it positively defines them. On ‘Stranger’, my favourite song, he sounds positively wretched, musing on the sense of shame he feels after a night of casual sex with a new acquaintance. It’s a peculiar topic (for a man, particularly) to write about, but it’s oddly moving – once one has reconciled Charlie’s lyrical approach with a natural aversion to cliché.

My first reaction to the set of songs on The First Days of Spring was that Fink had written an extraordinary, brooding, lilting set of instrumentals but been unable to find words to express his heartache without resorting to a set of anodyne, stock-phrases to voice his anguish. That may well be the case – there’s an interminable amount of cliché here. But there’s something more complex going on here too.

A year or so ago I was confronted by a very strange, emotional experience. In a venue in Hove, surrounded by my friends, I watched a couple of musicians perform a song for a shared friend which was informed by a sense of loss and regret and love. It was a completely beautiful, spine-tingling moment. Yet I mused afterwards that if I had heard the same song on the radio, unaware of the context, I would probably have written it off as mush; as mawkish, middle-of-the-road stuff. All of a sudden, an alarm went off in my head. All my life I have written off songs with unimaginative or sentimental lyrics as ‘meaningless’, without really given much thought to the fact that they might, despite their failings, be essentially truthful, heartfelt and honest.

Listening to The First Days of Spring now, it’s impossible to argue that Charlie’s lyrics are not predictable and clichéd – and yet something about the completeness of the narrative, the tone of his voice, and the sheer brilliance of his arrangements, persuades me that they’re entirely real, entirely true. When Charlie sings about “songs for the broken hearted”, or needing “your light in my life”, I think, why adorn these despairing sentiments with beautiful embellishments if the plain sentiments get to the heart of the matter? In as much as I believe that anyone’s heart can be broken, I don’t doubt that Charlie’s truly was.

And of course, ‘Stranger’ is just particularly pretty – built, like, most of the record, around simple, ringing, circular guitar lines played on a clean-toned electric guitar, and rich with Charlie’s heavy, regretful vocal. “Last night I slept with a stranger for the first time since you’ve gone / Regretfully lying naked, I reflect on what I’ve done”. It even contains what I hope is a gag; the line where, having described his lover’s naked body entwined with his, he croons, “I’m a fox” – before completing the line “…trapped in the headlights”. If it isn’t a gag, it’s still funny.

And then, just past the half way mark, the song changes emphasis and a still, clear, piano line emerges, accompanied by muted acoustic strumming and some gentle vocal harmonies. “You know in a year”, Charlie starts to sing, “it’s gonna be better”. The riff starts to circle. “You know in a year, I’m gonna be happy”. As it shifts pace, it slides magically from tortured to reflective to uplifting; it’s Charlie reassuring himself, calming himself down, the sound of the early signs of healing. As the next song reflects, “blue skies are coming / but I know that it’s hard”.

If The First Days of Spring is written off as self-indulgent and pretentious – or just plain depressing – it’ll be a real shame. There’s a hugely satisfying single-mindedness of purpose about it; a clear-headed, direct portrayal of misery (and the emergence from misery into a more hopeful state of mind) that, yes, employs a host of well-worn, too-familiar phrases. But I think they are true.


  1. Powerful Pierre

    I wonder what gig in Hove that was?

  2. Jonathan

    Yup, pretty obvious. I do remember that song – and the ones you played – as being incredibly incredibly moving. Not surprising I suppose. That was a wonderful night.

  3. Claire

    I really like your review. Shall go acquire the album now. I've been thinking about getting it but have read mixed reviews. I've just read the most recent entries after not reading your blog for a while. They're lovely.

  4. Jonathan

    Thanks Claire :-)

    Hope you like the album.


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