The title The House at Sea sounds like it should be on the cover of a Gothic novel, a tattered paperback. If there’s anyone capable of conjuring up vivid, strange moods worthy of a novel, it’s Amor de Dias, the duo of Alasdair Maclean and Lupe Núñez-Fernández. Maclean’s former band The Clientele made uniquely atmospheric music from the start, from when their 7” singles felt like beautiful little mysteries. Núñez-Fernández’s duo Pipas took a breezier approach to pop songs, but as the songs bounced past they left similarly strong impressions of sight, sound, smell, taste.
Upon its release in 2011, Amor de Dias’ debut LP Street of the Love of Days was often written about like merely a Clientele offshoot, and judged on that level. They were the better known of the two bands, so his presence is the news story, but if you’re not a journalist but a music listener, you can hear ways they’re building something different together, with equal traces of both previous bands. They unite their different but like-minded ways of bringing you full into a place, time and feeling.
I say place and time, but most often it’s the way a certain moment in a certain place can make you feel out of step with your surroundings, can make you wonder what’s really going on. In the opening track “Voice in the Rose”, Maclean describes such an experience – leaving a party, walking through an alley, hearing hints of sounds and feeling disoriented by them. At first it’s described like we’re in a hardboiled mystery, but also a dream: “hot wind in the alleyways / and you walk on cracks / and you’d better watch your back.” It’s not just scene-setting they’re up to. It’s capturing, in pop songs, the way our senses deeply take in what’s around us, yet can never fully rationalize or understand it all. We take in too mystery and confusion, wrapped in excitement and fear; feelings of loss, wonder, worry, regret and sweetness. By the end of that first song, he sounds peaceful but is expressing inner mayhem, or at least conflict: “I’m so lost / I’m so found.”
Maclean and Núñez-Fernández somewhat alternate lead vocals across the tracks. On her first appearance, she sounds not as lost, more awe struck by the details around us, as she sings of walking “In the Winter Sun”, against captivating Spanish-style guitar. Later, on “Day” – perhaps the most Pipas-like song—she does look back on an experience with anxious excitement, but still the focus is on the details – the shadows of the trees, how “rain fills your eyes”, a great bittersweet image.
The album is loaded with atmosphere, but there are pop “hits”, so to speak, here too. “Jean’s Waving” has the kind of casually striking melody that the Clientele often gravitated towards. Overall, though, the focus is on atmospheric portraiture, or at least slow-motion, rather than speed. “Hampshire Lullaby” moves gorgeously slow, in tribute to the voice of a particular place/time. “Hampshire night”, Maclean sings, “how I love your voice / one clear note / like a knife on glass.”
So places can speak to us clearly, but how we internalize it can be complicated: our surrealist visions, the tricks shadows and sounds play on our brains and hearts. In “The Sunlit Estate”, a somewhat spoken song, with what might be field recordings of trains behind, it’s the way falling in and out of sleep on a train can mess with your sense of yourself. (For some perhaps irrational reason, for me the song recalls the first two albums by the Blue Nile, other masters of atmospheric pop.) On “Some Old Night”, it’s when the wind hits your skin, while the moon shines down, and you are struck by a sinking feeling that something has been lost.
The closing number “Maureen” is to me both the most familiar sounding and the most theatrical; a ghostly, haunted house dirge, with shades of Twin Peaks, that brings back to me how I felt about the title (more so than the nautical title song itself does). It also returns to the first track’s talk of being lost. Their voices whisper, ruminate, overlap, until Maclean sings through it all, like a nursery rhyme used to scare and comfort children at the same time: “Over the fields / high and low / how will we ever get home?” Even creepier is the next line about the forest growing around them, a Grimm image that at the same time fits comfortably in with even the more gentle and lovely scenes set by the other songs on the album. After all, isn’t this just the sound of the other songs’ ghosts finally coming out into the open?