It seems that everywhere you look in the UK music scene these days, there’s a new earnest young troubadour popping up. Ranging from the more commercial, conventional folk-pop of the likes of Lewis Watson and Ben Howard to the moodier, starker textures of Luke Sital Singh, the emotionally charged, tremulous voiced male singer-songwriter is – at least in certain quarters – right back in vogue.
With a name that’s a translation of his own into Finnish and an album title inspired by the letters of Van Gogh, Sivu (James Page to his nearest and dearest) might at first glance seem to be gravitating towards the more experimental end of the genre. However, Something On High is essentially confessional chamber pop at heart, albeit with a deftness of touch and lyrical ambition that sets Sivu apart from more anodyne contemporaries.
Written while juggling dead end jobs in a call centre and Top Man’s storeroom, Sivu’s debut was recorded over 18 months with alt-j producer Charlie Andrew and chronicles its creator’s state of mind as he adjusts to relocating from rural Cambridgeshire to the Kennington flat where he now resides. It follows 2013’s breakthrough single Better Man Than Me, which featured a hugely innovative video that filmed Page singing inside an MRI machine at St Bart’s Hospital and has since had almost 650,000 views on YouTube. Even without the visual impact, Better Man Than Me is undoubtedly a fantastic song, with its instantly catchy, lilting harmonies and twinkling rhythm belying what’s an unusually serious rumination on mortality and faith. It’s not every day you come across lyrics like “We’ll find faith in the most magical of places/ And find home in the smallest of ruins/ We’ll find life in the most barrenness of faces/ And touch Christ in impending doom,” and it marks Sivu out as an artist who’s unafraid to bare his soul.
Admittedly Something On High never quite scales the same heights again, yet it nevertheless has much to commend it. The shimmering textures, unexpected chord changes and ghostly falsetto of Bodies and My Oh My would fit very comfortably on any of the last three Wild Beasts albums – a high accolade indeed – while Family Tree is a simple, almost serene acoustic meditation on the nature of belief and the swirling, Indian-sounding strings on Ruminations give the song a dreamy, exotic frisson.
Elsewhere though, a few flaws do emerge. A couple of songs – notably Miracle (Human Error) – do stray a little too close to X Factor style overwrought power ballad territory with their crowd pleasing, soaring choruses and kitchen sink orchestration. Sleep starts off life as a powerful yet restrained portrayal of a man weary of what he sees as a wasted life, but the arrival late in the song of crunching rock guitar chords does not lend itself well to the contemplative mood.
But even when he doesn’t quite get the dynamics right, Sivu’s gift for melody never deserts him. Something On High heralds the arrival of a significant new force and, with a little more fine-tuning, he will really be in business. Album number two should hopefully be a treat.