Since leaving the Coral in 2008, Bill Ryder-Jones seems to have made a speciality out of ignoring expectations, if not actively rebelling against them.
The Coral, after all, were and are a perfectly adequate band of a specifically English type: a fun, vaguely-psychedelic guitar-rock band, drawing most of their inspiration from a grab-bag of ‘60s-era bands – there are prominent echoes of Love, the Doors, the Beach Boys, the Animals, Small Faces, and Syd-Barrett-era Pink Floyd all over their music. It’s a style that is perennially popular in the UK, even if (or because) in its modern form it can come across as more about pumping up the good times than saying anything of too much substance; bands as diverse as Gomez, Ocean Colour Scene, the Charlatans, Super Furry Animals, the Thrills, Dodgy and thousands of lesser lights have made healthy careers of various levels of critical and commercial success from mining this sort of territory.
So when Ryder-Jones left after more than a decade as the Coral’s guitarist, what would you expect from him? You probably wouldn’t expect him to immediately dive into scoring soundtracks for independent films, that’s for sure. And even knowing that, you wouldn’t really expect his full debut album to be an orchestral ‘imagined score’ to Italo Calvino’s tricksy, wry 1979 novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. And for the follow-up to that album? Certainly not the gorgeous, melancholy collection of intimate, sophisticated pop songs that he has delivered here.
In its own way, A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart has some similarities to Ryder-Jones’ previous work with the Coral, if only in that it is an almost defiantly old-fashioned collection of songs. But this album draws from a very different tradition to any of Ryder-Jones’ work with his previous band: that of the damaged, folk-tinged singer-songwriter, with Nick Drake, Ron Sexsmith and Elliott Smith the most obvious reference points.
Like those artists, Ryder-Jones writes a great deal about troubled affairs of the heart, as if that weren’t already apparent from the album’s title. Indeed, this is an album drenched in sorrow and regret: “I never meant for anything to get this far / I never meant to hurt you, that’s just how things are,” he sings on one track. “Hanging onto things will only hurt your heart / Hanging onto me will only hurt your heart,” he sings elsewhere. There are vague hints at infidelity and various unfathomably complex relationships involving girlfriends, sisters and mothers, and other unexplained but clearly specific personal details.
Ryder-Jones has said that the songs on A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart are all based on true stories, and it’s entirely believable. Overall, there is a general sense of powerful emotions barely kept in check, that despite a period of distance and detachment the songs have been dredged from a deep personal chasm that it would be wise not to peer into too closely.
“Wild Swans” is perhaps the album’s high point, if that’s the right term for a track that manages to mine variations on the refrain “Don’t tell me that it’s over / It’s not over ‘til I say it’s over” for every ounce of pathos. The upbeat Belle and Sebastian-esque swing of “Christina That’s the Saddest Thing”, which follows, is a welcome relief by comparison, as is the romantic fantasy of “There’s a World Between Us”, for all that it’s drenched in melancholy. There are interesting moments around the margins too – the title track is a particularly odd two-humped beast, with the first part being just two lines of lyrics over a moody, atmospheric backing, before the second part closes the album in a lush burst of song with the trapped lines “I can’t look at the stars / I can’t be trusted not to look at the stars.”
All this sadness and introspection might be overwhelming, were it not for the quality of the song-writing, the beauty of the music and above all the restraint with which the album has been pulled together. For one, Ryder-Jones has a fine voice, all the more so given his limited vocal duties in the Coral. His singing is soft, mannered and sad, somehow like a less jumpy, affected Stuart Murdoch (of Belle and Sebastian), or a less sleepy version of Neil Halstead (of Slowdive and Mojave 3). It’s a perfect fit for the material.
Moreover, the performances all across the album fairly ooze quality and what might be called good taste, from the hushed, tasteful drumming to the gentle piano and acoustic guitar that dominate the album. That might sound like it could be dull, but the songs are given life by a collection of gorgeous melodies and witty, oblique lyrics. The arrangements on each track are subtle, yet expansive, with each melody given time to express itself. It’s all quietly beautiful stuff.
To some ears, it might seem that there’s nothing especially innovative with all that’s on display here. Yet the sheer attention to detail and craftsmanship on A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart somehow gives a sense – in keeping with the romantic paradoxes that populate the album’s lyrics – that these days this kind of unfashionably direct, heartfelt tunesmithery might just be its own kind of innovation.