Heart of Nowhere, Noah and the Whale’s fourth album, ambitiously takes us into the heart of the teenage dream.
At some point in time we perhaps forgot that pop music, or whatever you want to call it, was aimed at teenagers and pre-pubescents, and the gimmickier the single, the better. We can feign sophistication looking back at music that makes us cringe as adults, analyse it with a post-modernistic, ironic eye, as if of course our opinion at the time was that it was absolute dross, and we were just playing along with the game right from the start.
Then there’s rock music, which takes itself a lot more seriously. Rock has many nasty habits, and you could say one of them is always looking back to youth, the summer of ’69. Despite this pre-occupation, it’s probably a lot harder to write about this purple-tinted period well than one would think; all adults have been adolescents, but we are very quickly outsiders to a teenager’s insider’s world, and nowhere more so than in music and language. You’re either in or you’re out, and trying to get down with the kids will (rightly) be met with derision. So all the adult writer can do is remember how it was for him or her as a teenager, and not expect that current teenagers will get it at all. It’s not the same anymore, get over it.
Noah and the Whale’s Heart of Nowhere is ambitious, but succeeds in creating a sealed teenage world all of its own. It does this by being cinematographic; the album has its own orchestral introduction and an accompanying short film about a time in which adolescents were quarantined to “teenland”, considered detrimental to a well functioning society. There are people I know who would not oppose this as a reasonable position to take. What are boarding schools, if not following the same principle?
The title track of Heart of Nowhere is an emotional tour-de-force evoking what it’s like to feel you have no place of your own. This can be universal and not just applicable to teenagers, but the opening lines are a clear indication of the world we’re about to enter: “Your parents hide, they live in fear / They’re lying restless, as the dawn comes near / But you want to live, you want to try / You hear a whisper of the world outside”.
Instantly we know where we are, but it places the whole album in rather a curious position from the get-go; the listening public for Heart of Nowhere is unlikely to be a teenage one despite the subject just because this is more folk-rock than pop, and the majority teenage audience (I generalise) is more likely to be listening to something faddish, high in the charts (which they almost certainly won’t be listening to as an adult) and wondering about whether twerking at the next party is a good idea or not. So almost straight away it could place the concept of an album about teenage life into something like an exercise in nostalgia, and generally nostalgia does not make great art. There’s a high risk of an album like this being self-conscious, and the listener must be willing not to over-intellectualize what they are listening to. Fortunately however the title track is entirely convincing, especially when Anna Calvi launches into a wonderfully sung verse about following her man-child into the heart of nowhere.
If the essence of teenage desire is about escape, “All Through The Night” is the kids jumping in a car and getting out of town. The music matches the required speed to get away, the guitars are jangly, and rather wonderfully the lyrics add a complication: “we want the life, the lies of others”. Because there’s something adult about lies...
The next track “Lifetime” emphasises the transitional nature of being a teenager, and is cleverly observant as to how some manage to stay in a transitional period a lot longer than others, some not long enough: “We got high a thousand times in your brother’s room / Talked about how we’d break free, guess it came too soon / We grew up, drifted apart, now you’re getting married / While I’m waiting for my life to start”.
Charlie Fink’s lyrics are excellent, concise but poetic. At times they serve up good advice. In “Silver and Gold” a teenager doesn’t know how to answer when asked what they’re going to do with their life. Fink seems to use his own experience, thinking back to what it was like: “and I stared out into nothing, searching for the answer that’s right / But it’s okay to not always be sure exactly where you wanna go / And love may not be the cure, that’s something I’ll never know”. It’s a commendable approach and relatively unusual because Fink is willing to be non-ironic and reveal a male innocence: “Oh, my natural composure to try and show kindness and truth / It’s something inside me, but maybe one day I’ll cut loose”. The vocals are idiosyncratic, as if to hide the vulnerability.
“One More Night” continues the idea of how we mature at different times, so that the singer, and possibly the girl he’s singing about, can consider what could have been because “everybody told you baby, you got married too young”. It’s a Springsteen-esque theme (Noah and the Whale are an English band, but artfully assimilate their American influence), and there’s a similarity in approach through the multitude of Jennifers, Sarahs, and Lisas instead of Wendys. “Still After All These Years” takes Lisa, “lying with your make-up off / I can see the girl I love / Darkened brooding fickle and demure” and focuses on a relationship’s longevity. The way "demure" is sung makes it seem quite unlikely she is such, and wonderfully we’re told “this is not real life / This moment will soon be lost in time”. We can relate this both to the particular moment in the song as well as the nature of the song itself.
“There Will Come A Time” and "Now Is Exactly The Time” are upbeat anthems about the importance of friendship, the latter containing wise words of tolerance and compassion about forgiving your friends and suggesting that “if you can, try and get to know your parents well / Forgive them too, they are more like you than you can tell / When they give advice, offer sympathy, they’re just showing you who they want you to be”. It’s impressively considerate and manages to be so without being mawkish. You have to wonder whether some parents may push this record on their teenagers as a result.
The music of “Not Too Late” is decidedly down but the lyrics offer hope that it’s never too late. They tell us everyone has to make their own way in the world (kind of sad), but suggest that even if you don’t know what you have to offer the world, you should still put yourself out there. You can’t really argue with guidance like this even if you are a teenager, and ultimately this is why it’s hard to fault Heart of Nowhere; it has its heart wide-open, and not to love it would only be mean-spirited.