Aqualung: 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.


Magnetic North

Contributors: Sara Bareilles, Alison Sudol, Kelly Sweet, Matt Hales
Label: Verve Forecast
UK Release Date: 2010-04-26
US Release Date: 2010-04-20
Artist Website

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.