[18 March 2009]
For their fourth album, Starsailor have mostly shed the rock overtones of their last LP, 2005’s On the Outside, and returned to the lush, expansive pop sound of their 2003 effort, Silence Is Easy. As ever, lead singer James Walsh’s trembling tenor is the band’s most conspicuous asset, sounding like the voice of a long-lost member of the Buckley family. Though the band is named after one of Tim’s albums, Walsh’s pipes are closer to Jeff’s, with a warm lower range that’s become more prevalent in the band’s sound since their sparse, intense 2001 debut, Love Is Here.
Starsailor’s specialty is gorgeous ballads, and in this respect All the Plans does not disappoint. “Hurts Too Much” is all windswept atmospherics and chiming guitars a la Jonny Buckland or The Edge, and while the lyrics are a rather pedestrian litany of breakup woes, Walsh’s elegant melodies and heartfelt performance save them from banality. The achingly beautiful “You Never Get What You Deserve” rues a suicide with plaintive descending vocal lines and shifting keyboard textures, building to a shimmering climax with an extended instrumental coda. “Safe at Home” carries the album to a subdued end, with a lo-fi drumbeat beating like a timepiece to close the song out. Walsh remains quiet and in a low register for its entirety, re-creating the hushed, eerie feel that pervades the beginning of Love Is Here’s leadoff tune, “Tie Up My Hands”, without sacrificing it for the sake of pomp and grandeur.
The album’s more energetic tunes reach out in distinctly new directions, but never so much that they feel unfamiliar. “Change My Mind” coasts on a bluesy piano lick straight through to a solo stolen from mid-‘90s Americana, and “Boy in Waiting”’s lithe piano undulations feel more Bruce Hornsby than Elton John, suggesting a newfound interest in a variety of music from across the pond. Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood guests on the title track, which, in what is probably not a coincidence, is gilded with delightful filigrees of electric organ uncannily like Al Kooper’s in “Like a Rolling Stone”. The driving “Listen Up” is built around a dirty, punchy beat and handclaps, with a foggy, psych-infused guitar building momentum continuously over the course of its four minutes. It’s got the groove of their hit single “Four to the Floor”, but with the biting edge of On the Outside track “Counterfeit Life”, and the result is at least as good as either of them.
With the persistent lacings of Hammond organ, the country tinge present in “The Thames”, and the jangly Nashville guitar of “Stars and Stripes”, one wonders whether Starsailor were reaching for their own Joshua Tree – some sort of statement of love, fascination and disappointment with American culture. Trouble is, “Stars and Stripes” has neither the brick-throwing brimstone of “Bullet the Blue Sky” nor the sweeping glory of “In God’s Country”, and its protest poetry is clumsy and embarrassingly overt. But “Stars and Stripes” is the only track that’s obviously about the United States, and aside from the influence of the Buckleys, the group’s debts to American styles are generally muted. There are hints of love for Northern soul, gospel, and American folk rock here and there, but hints they remain. Noting the group’s occasional flirtations with American music shouldn’t obscure the fact that they’re still firmly rooted in English pop, the kind that, for the most part, isn’t blues-based. So many of Britain’s finest have had to cross the pond (musically, if not literally) to find heart and soul, but Starsailor feel emphatically at home in the dialects of their native land—those of Echo & the Bunnymen, the Mighty Lemon Drops, and Richard Ashcroft.
Starsailor’s particular dialect has widened in this decade into a recognizable sound, inhabited by many successful acts that trade in high and clear vocals, frigid Eno-and-Lanois-indebted production, frequent use of keyboards, and unabashed earnestness. For example, the airy, piano-kissed “Neon Sky” and leadoff track “Tell Me It’s Not Over” both sound like Keane, who sound like Starsailor. Some might take this as a sign of stale homogeneity, evidence that the pea-patch has been harvested so many times that the land will no longer bear fruit. But the songs are good enough to belie such a dismissal, pointing instead to a rich cultural dynamism that fosters the shuttling of musical ideas back and forth between musicians with broadly similar intentions. That’s probably just an overly academic definition of a “scene”, however; better evidence is “Neon Sky” itself, swelling gloriously with organ and choir at its chorus as Walsh keens, “don’t look to the past / our time is now”.
Starsailor aren’t the brightest light in their own firmament – Doves’s The Last Broadcast, South’s With the Tides, and Embrace’s This New Day outshine all of Starsailor’s full-lengths. The same could not be said, however, of Doves’s Some Cities, South’s Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars, or Embrace’s The Good Will Out, none of which measure up to any of Starsailor’s four releases. Starsailor are the most consistently good of the English pop troupes, with each of their efforts succeeding gracefully at what they attempt to accomplish. They’ve yet to match Love Is Here lyrically, and in that department, All the Plans might be their weakest yet. But with song structures so strong, and presentation so majestic, it’s well worth overlooking the few flaws for the sake of the intoxicating whole.