The tendency among rock fans might be to dismiss David Mead as a lightweight on his new album, not with respect to his obvious prodigious ability, but for the softness of his music. One can imagine, for instance, the indie-rock community disparaging Mead’s winsome piano-and-acoustic-guitar ballads as too precious, too pretty, too schmaltzy, too Broadway. However, those who can get past such predispositions will be carried along by Almost and Always, which may be 2009’s loveliest collection of pop songs.
Mead has deserved a wider audience for years—Almost and Always is his fifth full-length record of smart, exquisitely-crafted songs. They are albums that bring to mind a history of classic tunesmiths, from Burt Bacharach’s Brill Building to George Gershiwn’s Tin Pan Alley, Paul Simon’s mellow-rock to Paul McCartney’s adult contemporary ballads. Mead has, at times, experimented with slightly edgier sounds, especially on 2006’s Tangerine, but has to this point been most successful with the singer-songwriter soft-rock of “Closer” and “Girl on a Roof” from 2001’s terrific Mine and Yours.
On the new record, Mead gets deep by pulling back, eliminating superfluous instrumentation (like, say, drums) and delivering 12 intimate songs of love, regret, loss, and survival. The songs were written after Mead’s divorce from his wife and his move from Brooklyn back to Nashville, where he collaborated with writing partner Bill Demain of indie duo Swan Dive, who co-wrote several songs here. The elegant, torchy tunes were originally intended for a Bette Midler-style female vocalist, until Mead decided to cut them himself.
It’s good that he did. The album is top-to-bottom gorgeous, full of timeless melodies and tasteful arrangements, starting with “Rainy Way Weather”, a ukulele-based tune about having “lonely times together” with a past love. It’s a song that establishes Almost and Always‘s wistful subject, as well as the album’s spare beauty/ There’s often little more than quiet piano and fingerpicked guitar accompanying Mead’s high, mellifluous tenor, a seamless blend of falsetto and headvoice, and Mead’s own voice is certainly the best one to tell these personal stories. And as nostalgic as many of these songs are, both lyrically and musically, the lyrics avoid sentimentality and embrace broken relationships with both yearning and an optimistic sense of survival.
One of the album’s best tracks is “Twenty Girls Ago” a song originally written for, but rejected by, Paul Anka. It speaks volumes that Mead has an interest in writing for Anka in the first place, but also that Anka has lost hold of his senses if he’s turning down a song as excellent as this one. Over a simple guitar picking pattern, and then a piano counter-melody, Mead sings perhaps the album’s most indelible vocal melody about marking time by the girls he’s loved. It’s just one of an intoxicating parade of lovely ballads. “Little Boats” is a blissful drift of intertwining piano and strings and tranquil details: a crystal moon, the autumn leaves, a distant car, a sudden breeze. “Mojave Phone Booth” is the record’s most vaporous tune, featuring Mead’s softest vocal delivery accompanied by ghostly backing vocals. “Blackberry Winters” has a tricky chord progression of gentle rolling guitar matched by a knockout melody about a girl whose life hits a cold snap.
These tangled relationship songs are more “The Way We Were” than “Send in the Clowns”; that is, they are melancholy but not bitter. It’s also a great New York album: a guy takes in the scrimmage of the city from above (“From My Window Sill”), another compares his and his lovers’ hearts to the streets and parks of Manhattan (“Gramercy Vaudeville”), and, best of all, a couple hangs out in the city, takes the train back to Jersey, and sit together but feel alone (“Last Train Home”). It all adds up to a cohesive structure that might feel too monochromatic upon first listen, but as these songs reveal themselves, it’s a blissful experience. Is Almost and Always a perfect pop-standards album? Almost. How long will these songs hold up? Always.