“It’s the first day of spring, and my life is starting over again,” sings Charlie Fink as his band’s second album begins. Noah and the Whale courted mainstream fame in 2008 with their surprise radio hit, Five Years’ Time, but the rest of their debut album was a little too stuck in a Wes Anderson movie – winsome, wry and arch – to replicate its success. Dressed in bright colours and braces, they looked like the cartoon characters of Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down‘s cover art. The fact that the album represented a reflection on mortality and death perversely added to the cutesy image: isn’t it amusing, some film students are thinking about coffins whilst plinking on a ukelele.
If it couldn’t carry them fully into the mainstream, though, that first album was full of tunes and charm, and its slightly affected ‘quirkiness’ leavened and was leavened by its darker concerns. The First Days of Spring, on the other hand, marries form and content in a way which reduces the dissonance which might have previously alienated listeners, but in doing so forsakes the sugar which helped them swallow Fink’s pills. Not that the pills haven’t changed: where death haunted Fink before, he is here troubled by the more usual spectre of lost love and broken dreams (“It’s been a while since I stared at the stars,” he admits on ‘Our Window’, a song complete with mournful tubular bells, no less): melodies are slowed down so that they are almost indistinguishable; lyrics cover the usual ground (one song is entitled simply, ‘I Have Nothing’); and, of course, we build to the redemptive catharsis (‘My Door is Always Open’). If Fink’s life is starting over, the listener might be forgiven for thinking it’s a slow reboot.
One wonders if Fink isn’t attempting to make a deliberate heartbreak album – certainly its central trio of two soaring instrumentals sandwiched by the thrilling and self-referential ‘Love of an Orchestra’ (“I know I’ll never be lonely – I’ve got songs running in my blood”) might tip the wink. If so, he misses his mark: the textures here are too similar to each other truly to encompass all the cliches of the broken heart (where, I might predictably ask, is the country music?). If, on the other hand, this is a genuine statement of feeling, then fine – but bar a few bright spots (the aforementioned orchestral swirlings, plus ‘My Broken Heart’ and ‘Blue Skies’) the listener finds it hard to empathise for the length of the album. Uniformly sad albums can work – Tom McRae, Ryan Adams and Fiona Apple might all prove the case – and, to be fair, the album is also the soundtrack to a film, a quite different prospect and one in which it might be more successful. But as a record, the lack of variation in the texture of the mope on offer leads to a flatter listen than The First Days of Spring needed to be. Noah and the Whale are capable of cleverer capers.