Debut solo album from Field Music man sees him draw from a looser, much-changed sonic palette while maintaining the highest of standards
David Brewis is best known for being one of the creative forces behind Field Music, the ever-progressive, ever-inventive Sunderland-based quartet he leads with his brother Peter. Since 2005 they have released eight albums of angular, guitar-based music that bends, stretches and unfurls in refreshing and engaging ways.
During this time he has also released solo albums under the School Of Language name, which occupied closer musical territory to Field Music, but his first release under his own name sees him draw from a much-changed sonic palette. Guitars have always been central to the Field Music sound – understandable, given the brothers’ dazzling ability on said instrument – but The Soft Struggles sees strings, woodwind, brass and piano assume greater prominence, resulting in a noticeably different mood and overall aesthetic.
That’s not to say this album is in any way musically straightforward, however. It still comes with interesting, ambitious structures, certainly in how the vocals are arranged, but the overall dynamic is toned down a little from the more maximalist outlook of Brewis’s main band. It shows him to be a musically omnivorous artist, should any proof beyond Field Music’s albums be required.
Ahead of the album’s release Brewis explained how many of his favourite albums were the result of musicians gathering in a studio with an imprecise idea of the desired final outcome so adopted a similar approach here. Accordingly, he was joined in the studio by his brother Peter on drums, Sarah Hayes of Admiral Fallow and You Tell Me on piano and flute, and Faye MacCalman of Archipelago on saxophone and clarinet. An even greater number of artists contributed to the final product, all of who Brewis generously acknowledges on the cover.
It opens with the gracefulness and poise of Can We Put It In The Diary, an immediate sonic relocation of sorts to those expecting sounds closer to Field Music output. Surface Noise contains shades of Tim Buckley and Tomorrow takes flight, sounding even more uninhibited and free, largely as a result of the flute which adorns the track. Brewis has spoken of the influence of Astral Weeks by Van Morrison on the record, and it’s certainly evident in these early stages.
High Time and It Takes A Long Time are both in possession of a pleasing looseness augmented by piano chords and string decorations. Lyrically, they’re both quietly effective also, covering subjects most can relate to (High Time addresses the issue of meeting/failing to meet personal expectations while It Takes Time focuses on the perils of procrastination). Brewis’ children provided the inspiration for two tracks on the album – Keeping Up With Jessica and The King Of Growing Up. Both are understandably sympathetic and endearing informal character studies of sorts, which provided further examples of the album’s fluidity. When You First Meet, meanwhile, features vocals from Sunderland singer Eve Cole but fits into the overall album seamlessly.
The Last Day originally resulted from a project Brewis became involved in with North-East poet Paul Summers and a group of young people who were approaching the end of their time at school. The track sees Brewis offer his own recollections of that time, and with the foregrounded drums and prominent trombone, it’s one of the album’s stand out songs. Moments like these show how Brewis maintains the highest of standards on The Soft Struggles and confirm how he’s a musician able to trade in elastic, malleable sounds regardless of the instrumental palette of choice.