Christopher Porpora is a troubled soul. Or at least that's the way it seems. Pouring his heart out via his Cheval Sombre alias on Mad Love, the long-awaited follow-up to 2009's self-titled debut, Porpora veers from one relationship disaster to another. Or at least gives that impression.
Calling in an impressive cast list of collaborators and contributors that includes Dean (Wareham) and Britta (Phillips), MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, plus Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom) on mixing and mastering duties, Mad Love doesn't so much characterize the emotions of misery and despair but actually presents a welcoming case for them. Comprising of seven original compositions and three interesting and distinctly varied covers, Mad Love is one of those records that demands repeated listening. And even then the temptation to go back for more in case something might have got missed fourth time around is too great an urge to refuse.
Of course, were Mad Love simply an autobiographical account of its creator's personal and private affairs its analysis would be fairly straightforward. As it happens, the inspiration for Mad Love comes from a series of letters written by Emma Hauck, a patient at a mental institution in Heidelberg. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Hauck wrote a series of letters to her absent husband over an 11-year-period, many of which were never forwarded and remained in the institution's records years after her death in 1920.
"A long, delirious swoon" is how Porpora described the album to his record label upon delivery, and judging by the degree of sentimentality displayed throughout Mad Love's ten emotional pieces, it's difficult to contest such a description. Kicking off with the country-esque 'Someplace Else', Porpora's opening words "I wasn't made for this world" introducing the song and the album as delicately strummed acoustic guitar blends effortlessly into valiant keyboards like the blessing part of a Holy Communion ceremony.
And so it continues for the rest of the record. The plaintive 'She Went Walking In The Rain' encroaches on Sonic Boom's pastures of old; think 'Honey' off his former cohorts Playing With Fire opus and you're not far wrong. 'Walking In The Desert' follows a similar lineage too, albeit in a slightly more orchestral fashion, Porpora bemoaning "I'm tired of looking around where you can't be found", disparagingly echoing Hauck's desolate desperation. Eastern tinged centre point 'Couldn't Do' demonstrates the somewhat organic nature of the way Porpora as Cheval Sombre approaches songwriting. Essentially split into two halves, whereas the first part follows the conventional song structure, the closing half takes the form of an elongated jam that possibly could have continued long after the tape finished around the nine-and-a-half-minutes mark. The similarly forlorn 'February Blues' embarks down the same alleyway, Porpora intoning "Maybe tomorrow..." prior to its harrowing conclusion.
Of the three songs Porpora has chosen to cover here, traditional folk lament 'Once I Had A Sweetheart' - perhaps best known for Joan Baez's live interpretation having been part of her set from the early Sixties - becomes a swirly psychedelic waltz akin to the style of Irish five-piece Clannad. By contrast, a hushed take on Hoagy Carmichael's 'The Nearness Of You' doesn't stray too far from the original, save for the heavily organ-led arrangement. Perhaps the most surprising inclusion is Porpora's interpretation of The Walkmen's 'Red Moon', initially released on 2008's You & Me. As with Hamilton Leithauser and co.'s version, it's stripped down to the bare bones of just vocals and the most delicate of instrumentation, its closing statement "I miss you, there's no one else" perhaps summing up Mad Love as a concept more than anything else on the record.
Although Kember's trademark floaty production sound is omnipresent at the forefront throughout, its Porpora's disconsolate vocal performance that steals the show. Even when Mad Love gathers an upbeat momentum, as on the terse rhapsody 'I Fell In Love', a crescendo of weeping violins steal the pleasantries before a lonely voice declares insidiously "Don't matter to me if she stays". It's to Porpora's credit that even when singing about a third party only ever acquainted through books he makes every last syllable sound believable as though he were singing about himself. And that's why Mad Love emerges as a late contender for one of 2012's finest records.
8Dom Gourlay's Score