Joseph Arthur produces a blend of singer song writer angst with swirling avant garde tinged production. This is the full on mixing desk as an instrument treatment. Phil Spector’s wall of sound updated and rewired through a virus ridden computer. The songs revolve in a whirlpool of effects, digital molasses and shimmering ether. Sounds hover on the edge of the mixes. Tiny sonic fragments flicker and dissolve. Songs shift direction and tempo, texture and mood.
Thankfully this isn’t a digital overload. Centring the music, anchoring it to some sense of narrative flow is Arthur’s voice. It skips from a soft angora whisper to an anguished howl, via falsetto flourishes and a warm husky mumble. The song details, the sounds, the rhythms, the melodies, seem to have been stitched together with remarkable care and attention to detail. Like a pair of bespoke gloves the arrangements fit the songs perfectly.
Stumble and Pain opens with a hammered and heavily treated guitar chord that hangs suspended in the air. It casts reflections across the surface of the song. The vocals are swooning and backed by muted piano notes that hide within the swirling sound. A lingering build up of faltering drums and a haunting two note guitar refrain flesh out the song. The City of Prague Philharmonic provides aching strings as the song fractures and inverts.
The subtle use of the strings on another two tracks, Echo Park and Even Tho highlight Joseph Arthur’s strengths as an arranger. Too often string sections are used to add gravitas and weight to slight material. Need a touch of class for that rock ballad, pile on the strings. The November Rain cliché. Here they are used sparingly.
Echo Park glides on hushed strings. Arthur sings “The fire never understands the spark… our love it won’t fade away,” the strings swell and it sounds like heartbreak. A gentle drum pattern and organ washes open Even Tho. The strings are just another shade, rising up with the guitars and multitracked vocals. Adding depth without bombast is quite a trick.
The National seem to be jamming with The Strokes on Puppets. The albino Strokes funk contorted into a bruised confessional. The bass holding the tune together as the drumming become more urgent and chaotic. Next up is the drunken and woozy Wasted. The tale of a late night walk around New York pinned down with a bass line straight off of Underworld‘s laptop. The vocals are wasted and weary, Arthur duetting with himself. One vocal the happy, high pre come down wanderer, the other the headache battling morning after whisper.
The recriminations and regrets of a night on the tiles are confronted in A Smile That Explodes. Glistening layers of guitar, sombre piano and synth static frame a vocal full of remorse from mixing grape and grain. That waking up at dawn to find I lost my crown is not another to deaden the pain, that he still can’t get by without alcohol. Kiwi Julia Darling adds her liquid crystal voice to the mix and her vocals add light to Arthur’s dark shadings.
The album is so intricate, rich and multilayered that it’s difficult to do justice to its overall sound. It continues to revel more on each listen and I am sure that over time more and more detail with float to the surface and crawl under my skin. A real headphone listen.