The War on Drugs' bass player steps out from the shadows of his main band with a warm, intimate and strange little album that has one foot in the past, one in the future.
As Nightlands, Dave Hartley makes what might be the definition of bedroom music. Back in 2010, he took time off from his other projects, most notably as regular bass player for the War on Drugs, to record Forget the Mantra, an album based on song fragments he heard in his sleep (hence the Nightlands moniker). Reflecting its origins, Forget the Mantra was a dreamy, occasionally positively narcoleptic album. Its songs meandered at the whim of dream logic, each song a hazy, freewheeling blur of layered vocal loops and trance-inducing percussion. It was a pretty, often engaging listen, that managed to simultaneously recall African chants, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds-era vocal experiments, and Animal Collective's anarchic sensibility. Ultimately the album's loose structure and self-absorbed approach was as often baffling or simply boring as it was compelling, but if nothing else it did suggest an artist with great deal of ability.
On his new album, recorded on and off over the last couple of years, Hartley has refined his approach. Like Forget the Mantra, Oak Island was recorded in his Philadelphia bedroom, and a sleepy vibe remains. In fact, the pace is slowed down on the new album, the album filled with a warm, nostalgic sensibility. With a couple of exceptions, this is mostly quiet, contemplative music for warm firesides on snowy nights. But the innovation here is that Oak Island has a clearer structure both in its songs and as an album, and finds new levels of intimacy in its less abstract approach.
As an album, Oak Island seems to be predominantly concerned with memory and the passing of time, and there is a romantic melancholy pervading most songs. The first track, "Time and Peace", opens with a direct invitation to the listener to go with him "For just a little while / To a place I used to go / When I was only 17". The last track, "Looking for Rain" ends with the lines "Now I'm back here looking out the window / This looks like the place I know / But it'll never be my own".
Those two tracks bookend the album in slow sonorous incantations that nicely encapsulate the album's themes. After its sombre opening, an acoustic guitar chimes and "Time and Peace" opens out into an expansive, upbeat paean to youthful optimism. The album's other bookend, "Looking for Rain", is steadfastly downbeat. After an album seeped in nostalgia, the song seems to sadly acknowledge the ultimate futility of fixating the past – you might return to the places you've been, but they'll never be the same. It might be a trite observation, but it's artfully expressed here, and gives the album a satisfying sense of a journey completed. It's that kind of attention to detail that illustrates the strength of Hartley's commitment to his theme, and the care given to constructing the album as a coherent listening experience rather than just a collection of disparate songs.
In between those bookends, most of the other tracks also find Hartley looking back to times, places and people he once knew. In other hands, this focus on the distant past could have become cloying, but Hartley's lyrics are personal without falling into cliché, and the lush instrumentation generally avoids easy sentimentality. The most immediately noticeable element of the music are the vocals, which on virtually every track are thickly layered and heavily processed with all manner of effects. It could have easily become irritating, but the wide variety of sonic textures and effects are generally well chosen, serving to enhance the detached, dreamlike atmosphere of the songs. The approach might seem self-absorbed here too, were it not for the more immediately personal content of the songs – here, the album's singular (in every sense) personality is a real strength.
Musically, the best songs on Oak Island pull up a wide set of references – the lush sentimentality of Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips; rain-soaked ‘70s film noir soundtracks (especially Taxi Driver); the slow burn of Doves' heavily produced indie-rock; Yeasayer's trance-inducing psychedelic pop; and of course the ever-present Beach Boys, who remain an obvious touchstone. A couple of songs are even reminiscent of one of my favourite tracks from last year, the joyous Auto-Tuned Mister Rogers remix "Garden of Your Mind" by John D. Boswell, aka MelodySheep. Taken together the album attempts and largely succeeds at the difficult trick of mixing nostalgic and current sounds and sensibilities seamlessly, looking simultaneously backwards and into the future.
There are plenty of highlights, including the aforementioned widescreen opener "Time and Peace". "So Far So Long"'s gentle melancholy and soft percussion make it an odd choice for the album's lead single – single's night on a cruise ship, maybe. Still, it's a lovely choice for the second track, a romantic warm bath to ease into on a cold night. The real highlights come in the album's middle section though: the sweetly uplifting bass and horn-driven chorus of the album's most straightforward love song, "Born to Love", and the upbeat yet wistful "I Fell in Love With a Feeling".
Oak Island does have a few weaknesses. Several songs are mood pieces that barely and often belatedly come to life, pleasant and in keeping with the album's spirit, but unexceptional. "Rolling Down the Hill" is the weakest point, a subdued, blurry electronic track that sounds like one of Moby's discards, album filler that significantly overstays its welcome. Even then though, it's almost being saved by a strange little vocal interlude at the end. The album's finish is also a little abrupt. At 34 minutes, this is already a short album, only two tracks breaking four minutes in length. With the last two tracks following "Rolling Down the Hill" being both relatively short and slow-paced, it feels like Oak Island runs out of steam just as it's getting started, and ends with a bit of a sad shrug when it seemed something more grand was on the cards.Still, even if it doesn't fully deliver on its considerable promise, it's a good sign that Oak Island leaves you wanting more. With all the heavily processed vocal effects in use throughout the album, some track can sound like they're sung by a choir of sad androids, which is in keeping with Hartley's professed love of sci-fi. But what really shines through all the technological wizardry is the remarkable warmth and humanity of the album's best songs.