I’ve got to confess that I developed a decidedly negative attitude towards Manchester’s Cherry Ghost when I first got wind of their recent UK chart success and subsequently watched the video for “People Help the People”—their second single, which, at the time, I thought sounded too much like an updated version of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”.In fact, I had some pretty harsh words for Bolton native Simon Aldred’s pet project when I first winced upon noticing that he’d named his group after a Wilco lyric and, after watching the video for third single “4AM”, that he’d attempted to ape their inimitably American sound. “Blasphemy!”, said I.
In conversation with a friend, I moaned that they were just a bunch of “Oprah-friendly losers” who’d picked the wrong period of Wilco’s career to jump off of. After all, it took Jeff Tweedy and Co. over 10 years to begin writing innocuous tunes for Volkswagen commercials. When I first heard Cherry Ghost, I thought, “Here’s a band that hasn’t even earned it!” This of course, is a pretty unfair way to appraise an artist, but other hardcore fans of rock music will sympathize with me when I say that every now and then an integrity complex grips the best of us.
But when I finally gave a proper listen to Thirst for Romance, I also gave myself a major cause for embarrassment. That’s because it turns out that Cherry Ghost is actually pretty damn good. They’re definitely major-label material, with studio-friendly chops and a natural inclination towards glossy top-40 production values. And it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that they espouse certain ‘90s sensibilities; they sometimes call to mind the Wallflowers, Fastball, or even Goo Goo Dolls. But that doesn’t stop Aldred’s songs, which tackle isolation, pain, and working class heart-ache, from striking home with all the right chords.
Aldred, the nucleus of the band and its principal songwriter, possesses a rare gift in his ability to convey a great deal more with his voice than with his sometimes heavy-handed lyrics. Tinged with a grit shared by other comparable Mancunian singers like the La’s’ Lee Mavers, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, and Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Aldred’s vocals cut deep against the stark arrangements of tunes like “Roses,” “People Help the People” (which, for all it’s heart-on-the-sleeve emoting, is actually a fairly moving song), and slow-burner “Mary on the Mend.”
Still, it’s on the punchier numbers like “4AM,” “Mountain Bird,” “Here Come the Romans,” and the title-track that the Ghost really draws on the spook. “4AM,’ for instance, is radio-friendly pop gold that rings true beyond its initial catchiness. Drawing on a Wilco-inspired picking pattern (see A Ghost Is Born’s “Muzzle of Bees”), it takes the well-worn, though tried and true, subject matter of modern loneliness and rises above, with fresh lyrics in the verses like, “It’ll get you on the last bus home, / Get you at the discount bend,” and a big sing-along chorus: “There ain’t no hiding place on earth / That loneliness ain’t been first.” It’s songs like this that re-affirm the idea that as long as contemporary songwriters and musicians continue to bring sharp perspectives and powerful instincts to their work, there’s no reason to fear rock ‘n’ roll ever growing stale and irrelevant.
The greatest success of Thirst for Romance is a strong, cohesive vision that unfolds through a variety of ballads, driving anthems, and high-octane rockers. It represents a broad range of emotions and musical ideas that, while occasionally faltering, makes for a powerful debut.
Who would’ve known that a bunch of “Oprah-ready losers” could write such life-affirming pop songs? Better yet, who could’ve expected that the progeny unknowingly christened on 2004’s A Ghost Is Born would turn out to be such a valuable addition to the modern music scene? At least somebody still knows how it’s done…
You hear me, Tweedy?