Based around a pool of musicians in bands like Shoreline, Sons Of Noel And Adrian and The Miserable Rich, Brighton’s Willkommen Collective has been responsible (along with its affiliated label, Willkommen Records) for the production of many of the more interesting and folky, acoustic-y, or Americana-ish releases in the last couple of years.
The Sleeper, the first album from collective members The Leisure Society (now re-released on Full Time Hobby after its original Willkommen release earlier in the year) proves to be more than worthy of following in its predecessors’ footsteps, even arguably improving on what has come before.
What is immediately apparent is that this, unlike the work of perhaps the band’s best-known label-mates Sons Of Noel And Adrian, is music that is more or less instantly, likeably, accessible. Opening track Give Yourself A Fighting Chance is ushered in with a warm amplified twang of guitars, slowly and melodiously building until the tempo picks up and the gorgeous vocal (warm, human, immediate and somehow intimate all at once) kicks in.
Here, and in many places throughout the album, the happy-sounding richness of the music is curiously at odds with the lyrics, many of which are based around themes of loneliness, loss or rejection. “All the hope that you give / Ain’t enough for me to cling to”, they claim here, while on A Short Weekend Begins With Longing they tell of a love gone wrong: “Fine for a while / We were happy till it died” in a song full of lush, West Coast-alike harmonising, evoking ’60s free spirits like The Mamas & The Papas.
The contrast is more dramatic yet on The Darkest Place I Know, which sees lyrics that border on slasher-movie horror (“My throat exposed / To the monster ever-looming”) combining with a Sloop-John-B-meets-Fairytale-of-New-York melody and glockenspiels, yet just, somehow, succeeding without seeming too jarringly contradictory.
A real highlight (one among many: Save It For Someone Who Cares, Give Yourself A Fighting Chance, A Matter Of Time and Love’s Enormous Wings are all also wonderful) is The Last Of The Melting Snow – a very worthy recent recipient of an Ivor Novello songwriting award, it dives to richly satisfying depths where the emotional content and musical delivery combine to make something really quite exceptionally moving.
This alone is more than worth the album’s admission fee. It is one of those songs that, from the first listen, feels as if it has been in your musical subconscious for years, and is a quite sublime confection of 3/4 timing, graceful elegiac piano, guitar and strings, and a voice infused with gentle heart-felt regret.
Only rarely, very rarely, does all this melodious lushness and easy accessibility risk tipping over into sugariness. Title track The Sleeper comes closest, in the slightly cloying violin bits, but this is, at worst, a minor transgression. We Were Wasted, by contrast, is the sole track that actually sounds as downbeat as much of the lyrical content on the album, and is an interesting combination of double-time guitar picking over slow, minor key singing and violins.
Elsewhere you can hear echoes of a range of different influences, from the music-hall feel of Are We Happy?, to the Beatles-like quality to parts of Love’s Enormous Wings, which closes the album on a sumptiously upbeat note.
In short, this is one of 2009’s great albums. Accessible, hugely listenable, yet complex and well constructed; moving and enjoyable; it is likely to be treasured by most of those who get to hear it, and deservedly so.