For a while it was hard to keep track of what Shai Halperin was doing. He started as the sole member of The Capitol Years, before that operation morphed into a full-blown band project, with Adam Granduciel and David Hartley. Those two would then form War On Drugs, leaving Halperin as part of one of their early line-ups alongside Kurt Vile before he returned to his original project – oh, and moonlighted as Daniel Johnston‘s backing band on tour.
Whilst both War On Drugs and Kurt Vile have enjoyed some well-earned critical success in the past year, Halperin has withdrawn from the spotlight and hasn’t released anything of note since The Capitol Years’ 2006 effort Dance The Terror Away. Instead, he’s chosen to turn full circle. Sweet Lights, his newest moniker, sees him returning to his solo roots. He’s written and performed this eponymous album’s 11 songs all by himself.
The album Sweet Lights has much in its layered and hypnotic sound to recommend it. Production tricks throughout give the songs a floaty, otherworldly quality; the seemingly frantic cut’n’paste piano during Endless Town and Waterwell’s rather sinister and warped synthesisers are good examples. And not many records can pull off duelling electric and acoustic guitar solos (see You Won’t Be There and Are We Gonna Work It Out) without looking silly, but this one pulls it off. On each listen your ears pick up on something in the many textures that you’d hitherto missed.
Most importantly though, this is 40 minutes of well-crafted, intriguing and catchy pop constructed by someone intent on re-interpreting their record collection. The quality of the songs brings to mind Atlas Sound‘s recent triumph, Parallax, albeit with less reliance on recording methods of the ’50s. The lyrics aren’t bad either. Opening song Message On The Wire sees its narrator weary and tired (“It’s not for everyone, success or lunacy/It’s not for everyone, such misery”) whilst Endless Town acts as an emotional and conflicted ode to Philadelphia (“Anyone with any sense would never go/So why would you go to this endless town?”).
Sometimes, Halperin wears his influences quite heavily on his sleeve; Are We Gonna Work It Out seemingly questions the optimism of the original Beatles hit, but does so with an impressive purpose that feels urgent, whilst the phenomenal closer Here Comes The Son is what happens when someone tries to create their own Abbey Road medley in the space of just six minutes. This could all be taken as a lazy tribute, but instead it comes across as a wonderful re-imagining of the melodies and motifs that Halperin so dearly loves.
There are nods to other artists. Aside from tipping his hat to The Beatles, Halperin’s other major paean comes in the form of Ballad Of Kurt Vile #2, which is as self-explanatory as it gets. Yet none of this feels like pastiche; because the hard work of exploration and experimentation has been done on the other tracks, it all feels entirely individual. This album is the definition of the mantra ‘it’s not who you steal from, it’s how you steal’.
It’s very easy to get lost in Sweet Lights’ off-kilter universe. Amidst all the haze and echo that has been a trademark of many blog-championed indie bands there is a real depth that makes this stand apart. Or, put simply, it’s a terrific pop record. It’s also enough to make you hope that Halperin continues to make music by himself.