[12 October 2009]
Say what you will about Noah and the Whale’s debut—and critics sure have in the past, from lauding their earnest optimism to labeling them twee-pop wannabes—they know how to write a pop song. “5 Years Time” and “Shape of My Heart”, from their 2008 debut Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down proved it—don’t care that they’re silly, or that their lyrics are trite. (Aren’t all hit songs trite?) These toy guitar-backed songs still sputter along with eminent good nature, all buoyant and bursting with melody.
For their new album, the band has grander ambitions. That is, leader Charlie Fink has not only composed a more fully-orchestrated, complex record, he’s also written and directed a 50-minute film that is supposed to accompany the album. Having seen only the trailer, I can’t comment on the merits of the movie per se. But it appears to have a similar tone to the album, which is to say it’s entirely different from anything Noah and the Whale has done before. It’s all high-definition images of sun through trees, low-horizon landscapes, and young men doing symbolic things. The narrative, which is supposedly also reflected in the songs on The First Days of Spring (making it a quasi-concept album, yes), seems to address in general terms the ending of a relationship. But it’s more a series of vignettes—feelings, really—- than a coherent narrative. And unless there’s a massive plot twist hiding somewhere in the dialogue (which, according to the band in a recent interview, is sparse), The First Days of Spring (the film) is likely to be more of a mood piece than a standalone piece of cinema. Oh, and in case you hadn’t realised by now—the whole thing fairly smacks of earnestness.
But let’s not judge too much on an album cover and a film trailer, eh. How about the actual music? Taking something from Coldplay’s later album anthemic orchestral pop, and something from Matt Berninger’s expressive baritone-led ballads, Noah and the Whale tries diligently to mine out of these minimal melodies a sense of grandeur and, occasionally, peace. This works best on “Blue Skies”, the first single, and “Our Window”. Both songs are pretty but musically interesting, building to an effectively cathartic crescendo from simple, piano-led introductions. One of the consequences of the album’s gestation as an accompaniment (and inspiration) for the film is that listened to on its own, the album expands almost to the point of dragging. A number of songs top five minutes, and include extended breakdowns and orchestral interludes that are a little unnecessary (if mostly pleasant). And in fact, Fink proves himself an able soundtrack composer, utilising a similar technique to composers like John Williams and Gabriel Yared of combining simple melodies with stark orchestration, emphasizing the images without overpowering them.
But there are some missteps, such as the awkward Gilbert and Sullivan-esque choral interlude “Love of an Orchestra”. There’s not much consolation to be found in Fink’s lyrics, either. A random sample: “I believe that everyone has a chance to fuck up their lives”; “I’m a fox trapped in the headlights” (the first time you hear it, you could be forgiven for mistaking the ‘fox’ for ‘farce’); and the only slightly more hopeful ending, “I will only let you down, but my door is always open”. When Fink, sounding fragile and alone, sings “You know in a year, it’s gonna be better” you can’t help but think back to the previous heights of “Five Years”, and how much more refreshing that was.
Despite all this, there’s a slight air of desperation about all the film and music to-do. On their debut, the band couldn’t highlight enough their fascination with Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, couching reverence in a facetious twee coating that only now seems fake. That is, it could have been Noah and the Whale’s voice, but wasn’t. Whether the sedate atmospherics of The First Days of Spring are a similar put-on remains to be seen. To be fair to the band, they’ve almost pulled off what can be a remarkably elusive task: the revelation of grand emotion in a natural, rather than clichéd, way. But there’s just enough mediocre material that slips through to make The First Days of Spring more of a curiosity, an almost-successful experiment, rather than something truly remarkable.