For some artists you get the distinct sense that no matter how palatable and seemingly eminently commercial their music sounds they are inherently destined to never quite attain mainstream success, forever wedded to cult status on music’s margins.
In the case of UK singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Conrad Lambert aka Merz, a retreat from the frontline of commercial pop is a position you imagine he craves and indeed savours, content as he is to plough his own idiosyncratic and singular furrow, which he does to limited success on his fourth album No Compass Will Find Home.
When Merz first emerged in the late ’90s, he did so to much hype and expectation. His eponymous debut was released on a major label, but its failure to really take off was perhaps a traumatising experience for Merz, leading him to vanish into a near half decade of seclusion. The Merz that emerged did so on a much smaller and introspective scale with the gentle songwriting of Love Heart and the English folk pop influenced Moi Et Mon Camion. These albums established a low-key template of lustrous, heartfelt introspective pop. But No Compass is a far more daring and experimental work.
The addition of English electronic auteur Matthew Herbert on production gives the album an added sonic thrill with swirling electronic flourishes complementing the dextrous quality of Merz’s songs. Merz states that he wanted to work with Herbert after hearing his work producing The Invisible and Micachu And The Shapes; all three of these artists share a strong individualistic trait in their music. Herbert has managed to harness Merz’s ideas into an album that flits intriguingly from club based electro to soaring pop and delicate bucolic folk.
This is an album richly informed and coloured by Merz’s experiences since moving to Switzerland, indeed the album was recorded deep in the Swiss Alps. Freedom and progression of body, mind and spirit seem to be key themes. The ghostly spectre of Albert Einstein was apparently present as the duo recorded in an old laboratory used by the professor.
The sense of freedom and geographical expanse is palpable throughout. Songs like opener Arrows, with its closing lyrical refrain of “moonlight makes things clearer”, are mysterious pieces of mantra-like hypnotic trances. The finger picked guitar lines and melodies swirling in an airy haze. The dreaminess of these pieces act as a counterpoint to electronic-centered tracks like the frantic Eudaimonia that take Merz’s music in a more overtly dance influenced direction than it has ever gone before. Its ecstatic breakdown is truly thrilling.
While No Compass sporadically thrills, it also all too often gets mired in eminently forgettable songs. The music is almost always very interesting but the songs often fail to match up in quality. Merz’s voice is not the strongest and it struggles to carry the weighty themes of the lyrics and the intensely personal nature of material like Our Airman Lost, which deals with a family illness.
The best moments here are the those that soar with euphoric splendour; songs like Credo, which is reminiscent of New Order‘s best winsome pop songs. Elsewhere, Toy is an odd and beguiling piece that perhaps best represents the album’s spirit.
No Compass Will Find Home is yet another curious listen from Merz. It’s unlikely to trouble the mainstream, but his collaboration with Matthew Herbert offers much promise for the future.