The album title The Boombox Ballads first made me imagine Welshman Stephen Black’s latest album as Sweet Baboo would be a lo-fi affair. I thought of John Darnielle or Robert Pollard recording songs into the mic of a boombox. But nope, there’s no snap, crackle, pop like that here. This is an elegant, impeccably arranged album. He’s worked with an official arranger, Paul Jones, for the first time. There’s a string quartet, the music is begging to be called “orchestral”. It’s, above all else, stylish.
My second vision from the title was of John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, holding up a boombox in the rain. That’s not quite right, either, but it’s closer. There is a bittersweet romantic sense of longing on some of these songs, but none of the songs’ protagonists are as intense as Dobler. Sweet Baboo is more likely to throw in a joke or soar off on a flight of fancy. His romantic vision is a more playful; rain is still romantic, but it’s not a sign of sacrifice. “Walking in the Rain” is an entreatment to a stroll in the city streets that’s idyllic, a couple’s romantic sojourn. They’re walking against the crowd; everyone else is asleep. The only ones out are the mermaids and the seals.
That song’s string arrangements take a Glenn Campbell-type approach but then take them in the direction of marshmallow clouds and candy-covered mountains. It’s very representative of the overall feeling of the album, which is a fanciful spin on soft-pop balladry. For all the ‘60s touchpoints, in the arrangements, and more recent indie-pop touchpoints, in the overall approach and sensibility, the songs are just as likely to evoke ‘70s and ‘80s soft-pop ballads as any other decade. But with a difference: the feeling that Sweet Baboo lives in a children’s book world, albeit one fully saturated with love for pop music.
The best pickup line he can think of is to promise listening to records with his intended—“All I want to do is play you songs you might like”, he sings in “Got to Hang on to You”, while acknowledging she might not like those songs now, but will learn to like them once she’s spent enough time with him. In that way perhaps he’s more reminiscent of another John Cusack film character, the record shop clerk from High Fidelity, making mix tapes for potential romantic interests.
Of course many of us listeners have those music-obsessive inclinations too, which might be why the song that makes the best impression here is the 7-minute one, “You Got Me Time Keeping”. If that’s not a record-shop-clerk cliche, I’m not sure what is. But it’s true. It’s a slightly soul-tinged jam, the sort of the power-packed number that feels like it’ll last about two and a half minutes. But on it goes, entering a slow-motion reverie phase and then a bit of a psychedelic phase and even an experimental one, and then back to the jam, back in step with the rhythm. The song wins for its extreme dedication to the best ideas of the album. The song is somehow both the album’s most extreme and its most streamlined, without some of the cutesiest elements of Sweet Baboo’s music.
Cutesiness is no crime in my world. One of my pet peeves is critics dismissing an album as cute or twee when that’s precisely what the artist in question is trying to be. Sometimes there’s a wholesale dismissal of the gentle and the sweet that feels more about macho presumptions about masculinity than about what’s going on in the actual music at hand. That said, there are times Sweet Baboo tilts too far for me towards a certain type of purposeful cute-ness that ends up feeling inauthentic, more of a purposeful surface-level impression than content to grab ahold of.
Then again, to criticize this album for being too focused on surfaces would be to fall into the same fallacy I just described as a pet peeve. The Boombox Ballads is, at its essence, all about surfaces. Gorgeous, sumptuous surfaces. Black has described the album as his attempt to be a singer, not a singer-songwriter, and that’s the angle that is most befitting the album. His singing, the arrangements, the melodies are all in sync perfectly—and they’re in sync with the album’s romantic, albeit light-as-air, vision.
// Notes from the Road
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