“If you’re concerned about your chops when you’re playing, you’re not going to do that many favors to the song.” – Philip Selway to Mary Anne Hobbs, July 2014
Philip Selway’s emergence as a singer-songwriter was unexpected. His longtime position as the drummer for Radiohead didn’t necessarily create an unlikelihood for him to step out. Rather, it was his persona as a polite and quiet member of an already spotlight-averse group that made 2010’s Familial an unforeseen endeavor. Grant Gee’s Meeting People is Easy (1998), to date the most overt document of Radiohead’s grievances involving fame, features hardly a word from Selway. And in the history of drummers for the world’s biggest rock bands, popular imagination more frequently highlights the raucous, outspoken, or explosive figures. Meanwhile, the quiet ones are secret weapons. They keep their heads down and keep the time faithfully. They seem to serve without seeking attention.
A common critical response to Familial was to describe Selway’s folk songs as pleasant, but barely there. Thus the complete process of creation and reception was circular: quiet drummer surprised us by having something he felt he must express, but in the end his work was acknowledged as the to-be-expected product of said quiet drummer. New album Weatherhouse, a step forward, might not be a reaction to that relative shrug of a response. But the arrangements are fuller. The lyrics are more dramatic. The result is a somewhat more confident-sounding album from a songwriter no longer saddled with the weight of first impressions.
Opening song “Coming Up for Air” shares a rhythmic similarity with “Nose Grows Some,” the closing track from Radiohead bandleader Thom Yorke’s new album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Perhaps the effect of listening to both albums back-to-back heightens the likeness. Yet one needn’t strain the ear to imagine the bass pulse of Yorke’s song developing a tonal quality and becoming the foundational loop of Selway’s lead single. Years of listening to Radiohead makes it easy to identify these connection points, which are partially substantiated by fact but more often the product of fans’ desire to shape the band’s discography into a unified whole.
When becoming acquainted with Weatherhouse, there are traces of a family resemblance. Some are direct allusions, like the quotation of OK Computer‘s “Exit Music (For a Film)” in “Ghosts.” Other influences are less obvious, such as Amnesiac‘s “Dollars and Cents” and its association with the introductory section of “Around Again.” Though it’s neither fair nor constructive to evaluate what Selway contributes here entirely in the context of the Radiohead brand, his work with that band does become a useful point of comparison in assessing his approach as a solo artist.
“Coming Up for Air” is an understandable choice for a lead single. The song exhibits a central feature of Selway’s songwriting, which is to spend as little time as possible getting to the chorus. But the verses are undercooked. A majority of the songs on the album are fraught with personal and interpersonal conflict, yet many seem designed to reach a point of emotional/musical gratification as early and regularly as possible.
While that’s probably an ideal formula for the three and a half minute single, it’s a formula that wears out quickly – especially when the chorus undermines the song’s cumulative trajectory. Selway is no stranger to the existence of these mechanics, as “Creep” (perceived as Radiohead’s most commercial song to date) announced its choruses grudgingly, with angry stabs of guitar strings. Hence from the moment of their first exposure to the world, Radiohead both deployed and mocked this formula. Selway clings to it too tightly.
“Around Again” is an improvement structurally, as the high point of the song occurs at its middle. The strings swell prettily as Selway sings, “We’re on a knife edge / On a knife edge all the time / And it’s you / Tearing me apart.” The combination of orchestration and the raw emotion of the lyrics create the effect of melodrama. Selway’s singing style is most distinctive when least hushed. When he gets too calm, his voice invites comparison to the put-on “Adam & Joe folk band” from the Adam & Joe Xfm Podcast.
“Let it Go” is at first a sort of respite from the crowded production of the first couple of songs. But it, too, grows in layers of instrumentation and bets the entirety of its engagement with the listener on a chorus that arrives too soon and repeats too quickly. As a result, the song is paradoxical – ostensibly about sacrifice or surrender but creating no impression of what’s being lost (or to whom).
“It Will End in Tears” is catchy, but its melody seems too familiar. And its overall similarity to specific songs like Coldplay’s “Everything’s Not Lost” has the unintended consequence of directing attention to existing songs instead of producing an appreciation for the present. So it goes for “Don’t Go Now” and its likeness to Queens of the Stone Age’s “Mosquito Song”. In all likelihood, these parallels are not intentional. They are simply instances of previous songwriters and bands creating earlier (and enduring) imprints with comparable tunes.
An exception to this “problem of belatedness” (to borrow a phrase from David Bordwell) is “Turning it Inside Out.” This stunning album closer creates a distinct impression despite incorporating melodic resemblance and/or influence. In this case, the allusive element is a tune from the Flaming Lips’ “Abandoned Hospital Ship” (ironically, a number that withholds its sweet spot and climactic section until late within the song, exhibiting an opposite structural technique to that often favored by Selway).
The songs on Weatherhouse that command attention are those in which Selway and his band isolate a single musical idea or atmosphere and ride it for the duration. As a songwriter, Selway becomes more defined as a solo artist when sustaining unbroken moods than when building modular pop songs. Fortunately, there are enough such mood pieces here to make Weatherhouse an album worth returning to. Aside from a couple of clichéd lyrical choices, “Drawn to the Light” utilizes a marimba and slowly developing orchestration to accompany Selway’s pensive position. There’s a hesitant or halting quality to the composition that contributes a necessary measure of tension, reinforcing the meaning of the song: to be drawn to a light could spell redemption or destruction.
“Miles Away” gathers a few components – a measured drum beat, space between words, and reverb to extend the words and make them linger – and combines them with mostly atmospheric instrumentation. It’s the first song on the album to exhibit a sense of mystery. A few moments of jarring noise add to the unpredictability. Weatherhouse, so downbeat in its lyrical expression, could use more of this uneasy tone/feeling.
Overall, Weatherhouse is a good album that could be better if it were only redesigned around its own strengths. Maybe Selway’s preference for shortcuts to emotional connection and the use of evocative melodies are signs of a comfort zone he would do well to leave behind the next time out. And there is evidence that he knows the way forward.
Selway has cited one influence for Weatherhouse that is perfectly in keeping with his interest in themes of impermanence, temporality, and the wars within. This work – Mark Hollis’ eponymous 1998 solo album, Mark Hollis – is a touchstone of immediacy and intimateness and mystery in both lyrics and instrumentation. That Selway knows the album and cites it as influential, yet continues to rely on so many buffers and safety nets in his own work, is puzzling. Mark Hollis is a tough act to follow, but perhaps it is just the kind of album that Selway should attempt for his next breakthrough.