Like Richard Hawley's last album, Sky at Night conjures a distinct sense of time and space as it insists upon the desirability of halting the passing day for a while in order to focus on a space of listening that would double as a space for remembering and imagining.
On their fifth album, Manchester's I Am Kloot once again look to the sky and the weather for inspiration, even as they decide it may be better to stay indoors. Debut album Natural History (2001) found the group performing songs inspired by morning rain and sunshine hitting snow, while its successor, 2003's brilliant I Am Kloot, contained a memorable song about a favorite sky. Singer-guitarist John Bramwell's favorite sky would seem to be that found in the northwest of England, its brooding canopy lending a rain-soaked aura to the music composed beneath it. In a promotional video the band have posted on their website, Bramwell suggests that there exists "a kind of melancholy uplift to a lot of music that comes from Manchester" and that "the rain has got something to do with it."
Sky at Night accordingly leads off with a song entitled "Northern Skies", for which "melancholy uplift" seems an ideal description. "Where did you go on that big black night?" asks Bramwell in the song's chorus, "Did you take the coast road back through your life?". A note of reflection is immediately established, one that will remain throughout the album. Indeed, this is clearly an album to be listened to in a single, meditative sitting, presenting a series of reflective, quietly nostalgic vignettes that trace the path of one man's journey to the present.
Bramwell and his fellow band members -- bassist Pete Jobson and drummer Andy Hargreaves -- are hardened old-timers whose collective experience is brought to bear on this elegantly classic music, unafraid as it is to mix the universal with the local, the sublime with the mundane, and the musically over-used (Beatles-like harmonic interludes, Lennon-esque vocal directness, the lush sweep of classic soul) with such unfashionable qualities as introspection and self-critique. The various elements are skillfully manipulated by producers Guy Garvey and Craig Potter, of Elbow fame, into a focussed and channeled set of songs that promise to become cherished familiars.
"To the Brink" boasts what Garvey calls a "Sam Cooke classic string arrangement". The lushness of the strings perfectly complements the self-flagellating narrative, which, appropriately, tells the tale of a lush life spent in barrooms where "this stuff strips the life from your bones". To a certain extent it recalls the "hole in my neighborhood" that Garvey sang about in Elbow's "Grounds for Divorce", though a better comparison might be with the work of Nick Lowe, whose combination of desperate barroom raconteur and lounge sophisticate is matched here, as is his method of mixing folky, countryesque touches with soul stylings. The countryish delivery keeps Bramwell closer to Lowe than to Tom Waits, though some of the latter's nighthawk jazz can be found in Hargreaves's and Jobson's drum and bass work.
"Fingerprints" would not sound out of place on a Tom McRae album, though Bramwell's vocals remain more grounded than McRae's, less prone to giving themselves over to the pleasures of the voice; for Bramwell, the voice is always at the service of the song, with clarity of expression remaining paramount. He remains, at heart, a storyteller and he'd rather nail his listener with a well-turned phrase than get showy with his singing. That said, "Lately" successfully plays with the dynamics of minimalism and maximalism in a manner that recalls the work of Spiritualized, skeletal drums teasing their way towards gospel-like choral explosions and desperate-man vocals alternating with guitars that speak in tongues. For all the theatrics, though, the song retains a calm clarity that recalls, once more, the experience-wrought wisdom of Nick Lowe.
"I Still Do" brings Bramwell back to a favorite theme as he sings, over delicately strummed guitar, "When I was a child, I looked up at the sky". It's another song that hymns the persistence of memory and repetition -- not only the fact that memories live on, but also the inevitability with which we endlessly repeat the thoughts, actions, and imaginations of our past. In "The Moon Is a Blind Eye", both the sky and the earth fail to offer up any answers to the questions asked by humans; "To be loved ...to be loved ...is divine" is the best that the singer can offer up by way of hope. Like Iris Dement's heartbreakingly fragile "My Life", this is a song that looks, in the face of one person's realization of their utter inconsequentiality, to the possibility that meaning something for another is somehow enough to justify existence.
We're back at the bar for "Proof", with its classic opening couplet, "Hey, could you stand another drink / I'm better when I don't think." This is the song I Am Kloot released a few years back as a video featuring Christopher Eccleston, though it gets its album debut on Sky at Night. Eccleston also makes a brief appearance in a new video for "Northern Skies", contributing to the sense of continuum and consistency that is part of I Am Kloot's appeal.
The electric guitar that takes over the narrative from the singer in "It's Just the Night" is a reminder of another point of comparison for this music, namely the lush, northern English nostalgia of Richard Hawley's work. Like Hawley's last album, Sky at Night conjures a distinct sense of time and space as it insists upon the desirability of halting the passing day for a while in order to focus on a space of listening that would double as a space for remembering and imagining.
These spaces are reinforced musically in the album's two closing songs. "Radiation", the longest song on the album, finds the group at their most late-Beatles-like, with the addition of a spiky string arrangement and a multi-tracked vocal refrain that lifts itself out of the song, à la "Hey Jude", to aim for somewhere up above, the night sky perhaps. "Same Shoes", meanwhile, looks downwards and backwards, coming back to earth via Bramwell's weary vocal and the deep resonance of a mournful saxophone. It seems appropriate to end this way, with another song about the persistence of memory and, especially, regret.
Sky at Night thus closes in a manner that invites the listener to spool back to the beginning of the album, to take the road back through its life. As Jim Harrison memorably put it in his poem "The Theory and Practice of Rivers", "It is not so much that I got there from here, which is everyone’s story: but the shape of the voyage". I Am Kloot continue to trace their version of that voyage, recording its moments of beautiful regret and uplifting melancholy in tuneful tales that want to hang around for endless retelling, beguiling their listeners into believing they have the time for just one more.