In 2009, Noah and the Whale released their sophomore album, The First Days Of Spring. To call it a maudlin album would be understating things. At least on their debut,Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, songs like “Five Years Time” were wearing a smile on the outside, all sing-song dewy choruses and love-sickness. In contrast, the follow up album had metaphors about being a stunned fox waiting to become road kill. It should thus come as a relief to report that Last Night on Earth is a much lighter album, but in truth, despite being a departure, Noah and the Whale’s third release is not quite a step in the right direction.
Noah and the Whale have gone Americana. Not bare bones, Guthrie-style Americana mind you, but Tom Petty cum John Mellencamp, faux-heartland Top 40 Americana-lite—with gospel choirs and synths. Because, well, why not? The idea of making “Freefallin’”-era Tom Petty more palatable to tweesters by employing synth beats and some deft fiddling is a novel one, but the aim also seems somewhat contrived. Last Night on Earth strives for big, commercial positivity, but who is it attempting to appeal to? The Hold Steady’s fan base was the only thing I could come up with, but then again, I was mostly too perplexed to give the matter much intense thought.
Still, there are some things about Noah and the Whale that are admirable: Charlie Fink is fearless when it comes to sap. “Just Before We Met” serves as a perfect explanation as to why Fink is prone to getting his heart defecated on and then writing a whole album about it. In the most heart-on-sleeve manner, Fink goes about describing his significant other looking through Fink’s old photo albums and laughing at his bad hairstyle choices, then launches in to an outro that, in spite of the schmaltzy line “don’t be shy, be a brave little champion”, manages to be aspirational. “Give it All Back” follows a similar style, this time with the chronicle of starting a Bruce Springsteen and the Band influenced troupe in high school and putting on an awkward yet heartfelt performance during a school assembly. The whole reminiscence is delivered with such abject earnestness that the “Born to Run” style outro throws the potentially touching song overboard. Then again, if Noah and the Whale want to ape American roots rock, aping the American tendency to take a good thing and slam it into the ground is somewhat fitting.
Bands are supposed to grow and develop, and Last Night on Earth does show a good bit of maturity, particularly in terms of universality. Despite the aforementioned songs, many of the tracks on the album are outward gazing, with lead off single “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” being particularly successful. The lyrics, about easy girls named Lisa and struggling artists named Joel, seem to involve scrapped Springsteen characters, but the assuredness of the chorus makes the song hard to dislike. For the most part however, and unlike some of their more accomplished folk revival peers (Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn, I’m wishing I was listening to you), Noah and the Whale have yet to find their way. Maybe by album number four, they will cease emulating and start evoking.