Album Reviews

Sophia – As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)

(The Flower Shop) UK release date: 13 May 2016

Sophia – As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours) Sophia’s last album might have been titled There Are No Goodbyes, but after seven years and barely a whisper from Robin Proper-Sheppard’s post-God Machine band, it started to seem as if goodbyes were all too real. Thankfully, for the time being at least, any farewells can be put on hold and a Welcome Back banner can be unfurled.

Sophia’s default setting might well be introspective and emotionally raw, but their return is most definitely a joyous occasion. As We Make Our Way finds the band adopting a more direct approach, injecting unfiltered moments of rock into their songs, stripped back acoustic songs, and a little dash of pop aesthetic too.

Blame is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Sophia’s flirtation with pop, with its basic piano lines and delicate guitars it is, on first impression a mere step away from the sort of thing that flourished when Coldplay first discovered that saying Yellow in a pained croon reaps real rewards. The difference between cynical, misery-anthems and what Sophia do is that there’s a palpable emotion in Sophia’s songs. Initially, the lyrics appear glib (“I wrote you a letter, and hung it from the moon, and I sprinkled it with stars…”) but there’s a damaged quality to Sheppard’s delivery that makes him believable. When he gets to the heart of the song, having walked for miles on bleeding feet, the line “it’s ok I’ll take the blame, I’ve made enough mistakes for the both of us” really hit home.

Where this album differs from earlier efforts is that the sadness that is inherent in Sophia’s songs is not quite as evident this time around. Proper-Sheppard has made an attempt to try and give things a slightly positive spin. There’s a definite sunny-disposition to California with its upbeat feel and tumbling guitar lines. Even the vocal melody could be hummed in a jaunty manner on the way to the beach, but tangled up in these signifiers of positivity is a tangled mass of problems waiting to break forth. “The sun isn’t everything” Proper-Sheppard sings adding “let’s pretend we’re all in this together” for good measure as he jabs at Californian egocentric mentality. If the song didn’t have such a great hook, he’d be considered a curmudgeon.

St Tropez/The Hustle might feature a strummed acoustic backbone, but the layers of squalling psychedelic guitars give the whole thing a twitchy angsty feel. Not that he needs a squall to establish mood. A simple guitar and vocal is all Proper-Sheppard needs to make an impact, and on the song he wrote for his daughter, Baby, Hold On, he does just that, pulling at heartstings without layering on schmaltz or pushing into overwrought territory. It’s a fine line to tread, but he makes it look easy.

Part of Proper-Sheppard’s skill is infusing a few short words with a phenomenal emotional resonance. The simplicity of Don’t Ask is heartbreaking. It’s sparsely constructed with gentle guitar lines and a quiet vocal simply stating “don’t ask what you don’t want to know”. There’s an elegance to it that makes it feel like a final waltz before the truth is revealed. Quite what that truth might be is anyone’s guess, but as the song points out “everyone’s running from something” and by allowing the listener to project their something on to the song, it can’t fail to produce an emotional reaction. Similarly, the phrase “It’s easy to be lonely” seems glib written down, but when Proper-Sheppard sings those words, they become filled with meaning. When he adds an orchestral swell later in the song, it’s practically unbearable.

It might be seven years since we last heard from him, but he’s not lost his touch. Nor has he lost his ability to tap into shoegaze and post-rock when he needs to. Fans of his God Machine work will find plenty in Resisting to keep them “happy” as he kicks off in bombastic style, reins it in for a while, and then releases again in a heartfelt outpouring that can’t fail to hit the target. Welcoming Sophia back is an emotional experience; hopefully there won’t be another seven year goodbye this time around.

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