Neil Halstead‘s debut solo album Sleeping On Roads is a delicate, intimate and quite lovely thing. Nine tracks vie for the attention of your innermost thoughts and reach deep into the head, both lyrically and musically. We’ve known Halstead to be a major songwriting talent for some time now, having heard his output as the lynchpin of Mojave 3 and Slowdive, but this record demonstrates his talent for lyrics, vocals and guitar as much as songcraft or musical arrangement.
From opener Seasons, with its road movie rhythm and simple, effective analogue keyboard embellishments courtesy of collaborator and schoolmate Nick Holton, it is clear that this album is best listened to either driving on an open road as the sun starts to set, or in a room on your own with the lights turned low. Dance music it isn’t. This is chill-out territory the likes of which Cafe del Mar can only dream of.
The album continues with Two Stones In My Pocket, a track which delicately infuses arpeggiated finger picking on acoustic guitar with staccato piano notes, unobtrusive percussion and distorted vocals. “Watch the planes fly overhead / you could catch them if you try,” he breathes quietly over the fragile soundscape, not for the first time calling into play the sky, moon, clouds or stars as backdrops to intimate human stories sketched in watercolour.
Driving With Bert is reminiscent of Mojave 3’s Any Day Will Be Fine, with a tragic-sounding trumpet sonorously introducing an arrangement which features glistening glockenspiel and alternating rhythm, while Hi-Lo And Inbetween is a calm, chilled-out arrangement of piano, guitar and bass with one of the most beautiful opening lines of the album: “One day it just snowed I guess / and they closed the roads into your heart.”
If you aren’t wooed into a serene state by this track, See You On Rooftops, which follows, is the most immediate stand-out track of the record, a melange of analogue keyboards and the closest Halstead has come to a guitar wig-out since Slowdive split up, with layer after layer of guitar, keyboards and bass building a stunningly intricate tapestry of melody and counter-melody. “Caught in the moment I watch as you play with the stars,” he reminisces about a love loved and lost.
Title track Sleeping On Roads puts a banjo to great effect and, as a title track should be, sets the pace of this whole album. Songs such as this might be called Shoegaze or UK Americana, Tim Buckley-esque or even Alt-Country – what they should be called is Damned Fine Stuff. I Dreamed I Saw Soldiers, “done to the tune of Damien Durado’s Ohio”, is the only track on the album where Halstead doesn’t take sole writing credits, but it sounds like a circa-Tigermilk Belle and Sebastian track all the same. This might be due to the arrangement of keyboards, guitar and glocks or the rhythm, or the obvious lack of polish in the production. At one point we can hear what sounds like someone falling over a guitar and there’s been no attempt to quantize the sometimes fractionally imperfect glock parts.
The album finishes with High Hopes, an optimistic piece which looks to the future for “someone good who will stay”. It is the ending to a heartfelt and heartwarming album of dream music. All self-respecting music lovers should own a copy.