“It was only a few years ago but it feels like a lifetime,” sings Noah And The Whale’s lead singer Charlie Fink on new song Lifetime. While it’s in the context of a youthful relationship, it’s easy to imagine that he means 2008 when the so-called ‘nu-folk’ scene started to take off in the UK, seeing the release of debut albums from both Noah And The Whale and Charlie’s one-time girlfriend Laura Marling as well as the first EP from Mumford And Sons.
Five years later, the latter band are globe-conquering monsters with sales on a par with stadium-filling acts like Coldplay and U2 while Marling enjoys widespread acclaim for her ever more literate and intricate folk, even picking up an improbable Brit Award for her efforts. It’s Noah And The Whale, however, who seem to have travelled the farthest, in the sense that they are barely recognisable as the band they were in 2008.
Of course any band would change in five years (well, you’d certainly hope so) but it’s possible to pinpoint Noah And The Whale’s second album, 2009’s The First Days Of Spring, as the main catalyst for their evolution. Inspired by Fink’s break-up from Marling, it was a dense, melancholic masterpiece (cinematic enough to support an accompanying short film built entirely on the narrative of the songs) which couldn’t have been further away from the jaunty pop of their debut. While justifiably acclaimed in some quarters, the album almost certainly alienated much of the audience who had come to the band via the twee summer smash 5 Years Time. A commercial flop, the album clearly prompted a rethink. This resulted in Last Night On Earth, a far more polished offering which neatly balanced the band’s folk origins with an apparent newfound love for the widescreen Americana of Bruce Springsteen (or, at the very least, The Killers doing their own impression of it).
Given that Last Night On Earth proved to be their most successful album to date, it will come as little surprise to discover they’ve built on its foundations for this follow-up. In fact, they have ramped up the soaring heartland rock which was exemplified by previous single Tonight’s The Kind Of Night and largely left the folk behind. The perky xylophone of the Introduction (which could easily have fitted onto their debut album) is misleading, then. Indeed, while the soaring string intro of the subsequent Heart Of Nowhere suggests a twee anthem, the track quickly reveals itself as a muscular radio-friendly rock number (featuring a passionate contribution from Anna Calvi). This proves far more representative of the album, with at least half the songs here sounding like they could easily be cherry-picked as singles. These are big, proper pop songs with anthemic choruses and yearning middle-eights.
If much of this is catchy, however, you can’t help but miss the Noah And The Whale who could be emotionally devastating. Songs like All Through The Night, Lifetime and There Will Come A Time sound tailor-made to inspire pumping fists and mass sing-alongs and end up feeling like pastiches as a result. This isn’t helped by lyrics which lift heavily from the Springsteen book of growing up and getting out – One More Night (which sounds like it could come from Born In The USA) is even directed to a girl named Jennifer who got “married too young” and features a “kiss down by the river”. It may be a long time since Springsteen could call himself young but it’s difficult to understand why you wouldn’t just return to evergreen classics like Born To Run rather than listen to Noah And The Whale aping them, however well-executed these songs may be.
Still, while it’s frustrating to know that Noah And The Whale are capable of great art, nothing here is anything less than entertaining. There are also moments where the band transcend their obvious influences, like the touching Silver & Gold where Fink sings of being a teenager and seeking out Neil Young. “I was looking for Harvest but I only found Silver & Gold”, he sings, offering the undoubtedly hard-won wisdom that life is rarely what you expect but it’s alright for that (and the bittersweet misery of The First Days Of Spring is recalled in his plea “Don’t look for perfection – love pushes all that away”). Fink’s consideration of his younger self looms large over the album and the lessons he’s learned also serve to make Now Is Exactly The Time, which finds him offering life advice, an emotionally engaging success. As he sings on the closing Not Too Late, a lovely and plaintive ballad, “I want to find my own way to be a man”. If The First Days Of Spring was about your first broken heart, this record is concerned with the final summer of youth before responsibilities come calling.
Heart Of Nowhere presents a confident and accomplished band who know their way around a pop song. It’s a shame, then, that they seem to have lost some of their identity along the way. There are enough insistent melodies and snagging hooks here to ensure that it will sell well and please those who loved Last Night On Earth. Next time around, however, Noah And The Whale will hopefully feel confident enough to challenge and engage with their audience once more as it’s clear that they are capable of so much more than this.