[20 April 2010]
Back in the mid-‘90s, the Smashing Pumpkins released a single for Tonight, Tonight that featured no less than six B-sides, all of which were quietly-performed demos from the Mellon Collie sessions. While this may not have been terribly surprising given Billy Corgan’s high opinion of his own art and his propensity at the time to release every song he ever recorded, it was awfully difficult to deny the appeal of this little mini-album, especially as a counterpoint to the bombast and melodrama that were the Pumpkins’ calling cards. There’s an appeal to hearing a musician offer humility, the sense that we’re seeing the human side of their artistry, allowing us in turn to relate to the feelings they’re expressing just a little bit more intimately.
“California”, the eighth track on Aqualung’s latest effort Magnetic North is less than a minute and a half long, and offers a sound similar to those Tonight, Tonight demos. The piano sounds like it’s coming from the next room, the guitar is well-strummed but repetitive, and the entire thing is two short verses. And yet, it’s one of the most perfect examples of hopeful longing I’ve heard in music this year. It’s unpretentious, has a lovely melody, and doesn’t stay long enough to overstay its welcome. Matt Hales (who is Aqualung) says his piece and waits for a response that we never get to hear.
“California” sounds so perfect and so vital for such a quiet, humble little song because it comes from a place that Hales might have been feeling, but not quite ready to explore yet. Shortly after writing the song, Hales and his wife actually did move to California, presumably to “make our ‘big mistake’ before we come undone”, as he sings. Such honesty is what made those Corgan demos so appealing, and it’s a similar honesty that Hales masters throughout Magnetic North.
It’s a “write what you know” mindset that makes Magnetic North the success that it is; Hales’ previous album Words and Music twisted that formula slightly into “write what you knew”, as he re-recorded, covered, and slogged his way toward an unconvincing return to his early days. That album’s best moments were its new tracks, unappreciated and unceremoniously shoved to the end of that album; fortunately, it is the style of those tracks that continues straight through to Magnetic North.
There’s a refreshing aspect to the personal sound of Magnetic North that many artists, when being so introspective, completely neglect: The soul need not be permanently tortured. First single “Fingertip”, with nicely placed “doodoot” vocals courtesy of Kelly Sweet, is a joyous ode to the pursuit of love. Opener “New Friend” is one of those rare lyrics that works on a literal or a metaphorical level, and it does so by not taking itself too seriously—the “new friend” in question could be a love interest or, say, an iPad. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bit surprising to hear “New Friend”, with its double-pronged attack of Beach Boys melodies and gospel-soul ornamentation, in the background of Apple’s latest ad campaign. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
Sure, there’s no shortage of shoegazing to be found here. Hales has never been a particularly upbeat artist, and while the “ups” sound higher here than they’ve ever been, the album is still predominantly gentle, a little strange, and quite beautiful. “You’re my compass, my magnetic north…So I’m begging you to stay true,” he sings on the title track and album closer, with only his ever-present piano supporting his alternately broken and soaring vocal. Hales’ voice has never been a traditionally strong one, but his this-close-to-lazy phrasing works in his favor as he offers something like a calculated stream-of-consciousness vocal. “Sundowning” is just as strong, an early song devoted to the complicated process of repairing an incident that left a scar—for such an early track, it’s beautifully patient, and Sweet’s harmonies are just enough counterpoint to enhance but not overtake the melody. He goes a little over the edge in the indulgent, soupy “Remember Us”, but indulgence is a forgivable offense when baring your soul.
Word is that Hales almost retired from music a couple years ago. The only reason he’s back is because these songs just couldn’t be contained, almost as if they forced themselves out, and it’s easy to see why. Magnetic North is a restrained but instantly memorable album from a man who’s not yet done growing as an artist. With this sort of trajectory, it’d be a shame to see him stop now.