During a break from Athlete, Carey Willetts contemplated giving up music and at one point considered a career in butchery. Yet the pull of music was too strong, and he found himself recording for fun. After some encouragement he released the Silent Alarm EP which won awards for its artwork and caused a furore thanks to a video that bordered on soft-core porn – albeit with a bloody ending that proved a) his butchery training hadn’t gone to waste and b) he should never be allowed to storyboard any kind of porn.
Silent Alarm itself is more pedestrian than might be expected from someone who wanted to experiment with sounds and genres. That’s not to say there aren’t moments when Willetts hits his stride; the neat interplay between his guitar lines and the electronic interjections is well executed and lends a bleak tone. But when he hits the chorus, everything goes a bit wayward. There’s no doubting that he’s got a way with a pop hook, but the clash is as uncomfortable as his lyrical prowess, which hits every basic rhyme and cliché possible.
Ordinarily a mix of styles gives an album an edge, but Boxes’ amalgam of pop, indie and electronica doesn’t quite gel. Perhaps the problem lies with Willetts’ turn of phrase, which can be excruciating. Redskies, for example, is a tidy pop tune that taps into the loneliness of a bedroom bard, but lines like “I’m a puppet without strings, without you, this song doesn’t mean a thing” add a coating of unwelcome cheese. Despite Willetts’ best attempts to inject a bit of passion into his vocals and his ability to write an anthemic chorus, it’s all very safe. A bit of the blood lust that concludes the Silent Alarm video wouldn’t go amiss to provide a bit of bite.
Strip the vocals out, and Willetts could be on to something. Sharks, Boxes’ retort to those who criticised the video for Silent Alarm, possesses a rather wonderful meditative piano, some nice orchestral touches and a thoroughly engaging instrumental mid-section. The vocals only serve to lessen the impact, and as an instrumental perhaps Sharks’ riposte would packed a bigger punch and maintained a mysterious air. It’s this quality that defines the instrumental barrage of One with its fusion of glitchy electronica and waves of post-rock tidal guitars.
Closing the album is I Can’t Imagine, written about the birth of Willetts’ son, whose heart stopped during birth. It’s filled with emotion, though strangely, it comes mainly from the mournful cello, driving drums and soaring violin that close the track. Willetts tries to fill his vocals with passion, but they can’t measure up to the howl that emanates from the string section. Similarly the nostalgia of Between Whisky And Snow is touching, but the vocals obscure the music, which is where everything of any interest is occurring.
Yet there are some wonderful moments of pop sensibility on Stickers. The title track has a fine vocal melody which just about works with the soaring guitars and, although Dominoes suffers from poor lyricism (“I can never stop myself, I’m a loser”), the chorus is pure pop. It’s possible to imagine Willetts seated on a stool as the minimal electronic verses play out, then standing up to deliver the chorus. It’s a trick that Don’t Look Down also employs with similar success.
Quite why Stickers doesn’t quite work is a mystery. Willetts possesses the skill as a songwriter, and he’s got a way with a pop hook and can compose interesting ambient instrumental pieces. If he can combine those skills more successfully he’ll be on to something.