Ideally, it would be the start of January before any kind of lists based on 2009 would be formulated, but that’s rarely the case. So, in conjunction with pretty much everybody else in the world, it’s time to start the inevitable end of year lists. In keeping with the lazy way this blog is compiled, there’s not really going to be any real climax to this, nor is there to be any ‘top 10’ style lists of albums or anything – just a couple of posts on what’s made this year better. With the exception of Pro Evolution Soccer selling out to Kaiser Cheifs and Stereophonics, pretty much everyone has moved away from the boring ‘lads with guitars’ band structure that’s haunted everyone for the past few years, which is a bonus. Hopefully 2010 will finally kill it off. Anyway, before we look forward, let’s look back for a bit.
The sound of summer 2008 was, for many, that of Noah & the Whale’s 5 years time. it’d been floating around for ages, but it only really caught on with the mainstream sometime around April and hung around until September to see out the sodden festival season, meaning everyone from your Auntie to… other members of your family who usually only like Take That was humming and whistling along to an undoubted feel-good classic.
Fast forward 12 months and things have changed – folk has been replaced with electro pop and every VT on the One show is being played to background music by La Roux. Not only that, in First days of Spring, Noah and the Whale have completely ditched their happy songs in favour of making what must be one of the year’s most downbeat releases. There has always been a hint of sadness in Charlie Fink’s lyrics, but jokey, almost throwaway quips like ‘If love is just a game/Then how come it’s no fun?’ are nothing compared the the unrelenting sadness of many of the songs on their second album.
It’s an absolutely fearless piece of work throughout, allegedyly documenting the fall-out of Fink’s relationship with Laura Marling. The songs deal with the self loathing, doubt and hatred that comes with the end of a relationship. Of course, they’re common subjects for a lot of artists, but few manage the unflinching honesty that the band acheieve on here. It’s strength lies not only in the truth behind the words, but also the spectacular arrangements throughout the record.
Though ‘Peaceful, the world lays me down’ settled for simplistic, cute songs, there’s little trace of that now. The sound is now one that alternates between dark and sinister, as shown through ‘Stranger’s story of a one night stand, to lavish and overwhelming. Nowhere is that more clear than the trio of songs in the centre of the album, ‘Instrumetal I’, ‘Love of an orchestra’ and ‘Instrumental II’. Not only do they mark the uplifting highpoint of an album, they signal a change in tone for the subject matter, going from the denial and self blame of the first half to the realisation and accepting of the second.
It’s a collection of songs that make your heart ache, but the only sad part is that it’s not received the coverage that it’s predecessor managed. In comparison, their earlier work looks like the ditties of a naive youngster, whereas this a more cynical, complete body of work. There’s obviously more than a depressing air to ‘First days of Spring’, but there’s ultimately a message of hope, and whilst the journey that the band take you through is fraught with emotion and uncompromising themes and imagery, it’s ultimately one of the most rewarding albums of the year.