As lead singer of Mojave 3, Neil Halstead has been making American roots music, interpreted as only a group of Brits could. The slowish, dream-like quality of their three albums together have been, at times, both beautiful and sad. In his solo debut, Sleeping on Roads, Halstead goes further into the roots of this music, the result of which is a kind of alt-folk gem. A cursory listen brings to mind ‘70s AM radio, from James Taylor to Neil Young to (yipes!) Toto. The easy way out is to compare Halstead’s voice to that of Nick Drake, but it’s not that easy. Compared to his Mojave 3 output, this is sparser yet more classically melodic. Several listens in, it becomes apparent that the deceptive simplicity of the lyrics and melodies belie intricacy and depth.
Like many singer-songwriters, many of Neil Halstead’s songs on Sleeping on Roads deal with failed relationships, each more delicate and melancholy than the last. He is a wordsmith with the lyricism of Bob Dylan and Elliott Smith. “Before we were old memories / And I guessed that we’d be fine / Shooting stars still break her heart / And sunsets make her cry” he sings in “Two Stones in My Pocket”, with a piercing lamentation in his voice. Whether trying to heal himself or some else, he seems to find a way to cut through to the heart of the matter. There are few songwriters with the ability to keep it as simple yet biting as this. “One day it just snowed I guess / And they closed the roads into your heart / You came home like a dead star / No light left / No loving anymore” (from “Hi-Lo and Inbetween”) is chilling and true.
The instrumentation on Sleeping on Roads is a mix of folk music essentials, such as acoustic and electric guitars, piano and drums (played by Halstead’s Mojave 3 bandmate Ian McCutcheon). But there is also an eclectic mix of non-traditional instruments such as cello, glockenspiel, vibes and trumpet put to use in varying ways to give the entire album its southwestern feel. The song that most benefits from these (and uses the trumpet in its most effective way) is “Driving with Bert”, a kind of tribute to legendary Scottish folk artist Bert Jansch. Like the title suggests, it does sound like a driving song, but with elements of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western theme that would make Ennio Morricone proud. A lush mix of instruments over an understated vocal, this is one of the most upbeat (at least in meter) songs on the record.
The second to last song on the album, “Dreamed I Saw Soldiers”, has the writer at the top of his craft, both musically and lyrically. Melodically, it is beautiful in its sparseness, with mainly guitar and organ over a simple driving drum pattern. Heartbreaking in its build up, it crescendos with the line “What has become of our love / Of our love?”. This is as good a phrase as any other to represent Sleeping on Roads’ underlying sentiment. Neil Halstead’s solo debut is not something that reveals itself immediately, but eventually opens up enough for you to curl up inside and feel his pain. This is the stuff of classic sad-bastard pop music, but the arrangements elevate this to a different, more interesting level. The record is more comforting and universal than his work with Mojave 3, while sitting comfortably with that group’s best output. Perhaps Halstead will find a comfortable existence sharing his time between the two, but he has proven that he can successfully go it alone.