As one half of post-pop duo epic45, Benjamin Holton is an adroit veteran when it comes to conjuring images and emotions through sound. His solo project My Autumn Empire’s third and latest release, The Visitation is no exception, and - despite its extraterrestrial concept - is rooted with familiar themes of nostalgia, introspection, and relationships.
This album is more placid and assured than previous outings II (2012) and The Village Compass (2010). The latter was meek yet poignant, and the former a more confident and expansive foray. But for The Visitation, Holton seems to know exactly what he wants to conjure up, serenely dictating its ups-and-downs, but without ever leaving his comfort zone. Apparently, it arrives after the singer-songwriter rejected advances by industry behemoths Warner Brothers and EMI.
The opening of The Visitation sees it at its most efficacious and compelling. ‘When You Crash Landed’ beautifully conveys a metaphorical beginning: life is gently unfurling, the world awakens. Much like the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, in which stimulation of one sense leads to the involuntary stimulation of another, it is a vivid, hazy, and cinematic image. It’s as if the sun is rising, with light gently seeping through your window, while Holton breathily intones: "When you crash landed September ‘83/Autumn broke your fall”. The song is like a timid Animal Collective recording, influenced by the countryside of Staffordshire rather than arid North-American terrain.
It is soon followed up by - easily the standout track of the album - ‘Blue Coat’, which wistfully recollects the object of Holton’s affections ("I saw you looking through the window on the bus that day/I never wanted to let you go”). Though there is a determination to the song that makes it more than just a downcast ditty: counterposed vocals, undulating synths, and firm percussion add an edge.
The strength of this album lies in its ability summon the influence of a very much idyllic England, while incorporating a slightly dystopian, other-worldly feel. The title track ‘The Visitation’ has touches of warped, bending folk found in Mac DeMarco and Connan Mockasin, and even faint residues of The Beatles. But when not at its best, the songs can feel twee and saccharine, with ‘Summer Sound’ one long, lilting melody too many.
When discussing the album’s concept, Holton explained that even though couples may have spent years together, if a relationship fails, the person can become ‘effectively an alien’. As such, parts of the album take a more terrestrial, mundane turn, and how we can ourselves become social aliens. ‘Andrew’ tells the real life tale of a man - who, after being made redundant - let his life descend into non-stop television watching, to be found dead in his armchair one day, the TV still on. It is a story that proves more interesting in literary terms, than musical ones.
The Visitation is an accomplished - and at times, absorbing - release, especially impressive given that it was both recorded and produced by Holton. In the right mood and circumstances, it could thrive. However, the album loses force when digressing from its original concept. Although it takes its name from an early Eighties Doctor Who story in which an alien crash lands on Earth, in practice, this album never really takes off.