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“Sick of being someone he did not admire / Took apart his old things, set ‘em all on fire”
Have you ever been, like, really sad and then, like, really happy again? And during either of those times, did you get a synth for your birthday? This is my expert(ly facetious) analysis of the last couple of years in the life of Charlie Fink, writer-singer with London poptet Noah & the Whale, not that I’m in any position to speculate. Noah & the Whale, by the way, are the ones who followed up their radio-cosy debut LP Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down with – and excuse all this fourth-wall parkour, readers – one of the most tender and direct break-up records I’ve ever heard, The First Days of Spring, which was partnered by a full-length labour-of-love film conceptualised by the band that formed something of a scrapbook-in-motion of a relationship from beginning to end. And actually, Last Night on Earth – while almost deliberately the sonic opposite to First Days... – is just as affecting, so brimming is it with all the gall and resolve - and, somewhere along the way, thrill - of having made a decision to break free and move forward.
Comprising ten three-minute-or-thereabouts tabs of sky-rocketing melody and unabashed choral togetherness, it’s probably the kind of record that has to hit you at a certain point in your year or life; if you’re still wallowing, its willed idealism will shudder like sugar to a cavity. But while it’s fun and fizzy with whizz-bang keyboard effects and spangly electronics, to say it’s emptily happy would be to read it all wrong. As outwardly bright-eyed as, for example, ‘Waiting For My Chance To Come’ is, its optimism and swagger are born from a previous lethargy, from a bad, broken time when it was too much just to get up and out of bed (“Well it takes real guts to be alone / Going head to head with the great unknown… ‘Cause it’s hard to feel like you’re worth something in this life”). Take opener ‘Life Is Life’; while the first verse is all sticky and chubby with its pucker-pink drums and fructose bass, the track lifts off on a crosswind of anxious promise, Charlie’s glittering chorus line – “And it feels like his new life can start / And it feels like heaven” – delivered like he’s just taken his first breath after minutes, days, months of struggling underwater.
So too with ‘Just Before We Met’; its neuroses and self-analysis (“Well I’ve always had a wild imagination and a see-through heart / Which I know can be a wild combination”) counter Tom Hobden’s gloriously soaring violin lines with a fragility that Charlie brings to almost everything he sings. Even ‘Give It All Back’ – a spunky, ecstatic ode to the days when playing in assembly with your high school rock band was the most seminal thing you could do – is ultimately nostalgic and sepia-smudged. (“Yeah I’d give it all back just to do it again / Turn back time, be with my friends tonight”). And then there are the curveballs, the moments where the determination and willpower splinter. Over the water-woozy synth whine of ‘Wild Thing’, Charlie fixes a portrait of a lost city-wanderer with fairytale hair and bloodstained jeans and gives her the album’s best lines: “The boredom stirs a rage inside her soul / The razor reaches out and takes control… Everyone has questions, but no one wants to know / How far the anger in someone can really make them go”.
Similarly, the female character of ‘The Line’ is barely convinced of her own existence; tiptoeing away from a vague morning scene, she asks, “Is this the line where I get up and walk out? / Is this the line where you get drunk and you yell?” as though suddenly aware that the life she’s living is just a rehashed, ready-scripted version of a million lives before it. The track burbles out, as noncommittal and tracing paper-flimsy as the girl herself. Finally, the warm, gospel glow of ‘Old Joy’ has all the soft power of First Days...’s magnificent closer ‘My Door Is Always Open’.
Charlie’s lyrics can occasionally verge on the wincingly transparent – and that was certainly one of the few criticisms levelled at The First Days of Spring. But to these ears – and yeah, it’s a well-trodden observation – his words are all the more cutting for their lack of decoration; after all, the strongest emotions are the ones that are the least complicated, the ones best expressed through an instinctual vocabulary of cries or whoops or sighs or cheerleading singalongs (‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’). With Last Days on Earth, the persistently-versatile Noah continue to set to music those picturebooks of get-togethers, easy plateaus and break-ups that we’ve all got stored in our heads and add to year-on-year – and, in the process, they’ve managed to forge some great big tunes. More or less irresistible.
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