The release of Clockdust, the brand-new offering from Rustin Man a.k.a. former Talk Talk bassist turned wistful folkie Paul Webb, comes as a welcome surprise, given that 17 years expired between his quietist debut under that moniker, 2002’s collaboration with Portishead chanteuse Beth Gibbons, and its intricate solo follow-up, 2019’s Drift Code.
Like its comely predecessor, Clockdust is anchored by the singer-songwriter’s cracked, idiosyncratic, and quintessentially English vocal tones – somewhere between the windswept warble of Robert Wyatt and weathered late-period David Bowie. The record highlights his predilection for a hauntological, cultish strain of psychedelic folk pastoral powered by metronomic piano, clicking percussion, and acoustic guitars. It’s subtly decorated by ghostly harmonies, woodwind, electronics, euphonium, organ, and brass. It’s catchy, carefully crafted, and tastefully arranged, meticulously blending acoustic and electronic elements and reaching out for reveries of darkness as it locates a tangy-sweet spot between past and present.
The opening track, “Carousel Days”, ushers the listener into a nostalgic piano ballad about the halcyon days of youth carrying the admission that his body is breaking down and surrendering to the passing of time. A cluster of piano chords and the weary resignation of a trumpet embellish and embroider Webb’s oaky, mournful singing. “It was such a thrill / I don’t know how we could just lose it,” he intones foggily and forlornly. In turn, this delicate, swollen-throated shiver sets the emotional register for the rest of the album, a multi-layered, genre-straddling, and velvety oddity whose languid and troubled meditations on time, loss and hope come wrapped in ageless arrangements of warped, off-kilter strangeness.
“Jackie’s Room” revels in its lilting grace and parched emotional terrain, all worn-in acoustics and lived-in vocals elegantly complementing the beautiful and understated melody and never overpowering the listener. One can almost imagine this being covered by fellow musical magpies Broadcast, whose “Alice through the Testcard” vision of occult, lop-sided pop created something similarly haunted and evocative. Similarly, the séance-like “Night in Evening City” takes this heady hall of mirrors and junk shop approach and weaves a staggering dub pulse through its wobbly shuffle. Meanwhile, the wordless, intoxicating “Rubicon Song” invokes the phantasmagoric aura of “Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age” with its uncanny nursery rhyme chatter of reed and wind instruments and dream logic voices.
“Old Flamingo” delivers a relentlessly pretty and sonorous melody from every spooked, finger-picked note, and “Kinky Living” offers a twinkling left turn with its smoky, orchestral nods to Kurt Weill and John Barry. “Man with a Remedy” brings forth a stately crescendo of tingling instrumentals and searing vocals that are more ebullient than the whispered murmurs elsewhere.
For all its shades of emotional fragility, the record never descends into morose mithering. That is exacerbated by a homespun production style that’s like a comforting blanket by the fireside as the pitter-patter of rain caresses the windows.
Steeped in wyrd-folk aesthetics and animated by exotic and unexpected flourishes, Rustin Man has conjured another cohesive, gripping, and quirky statement that possesses its distinct character and feels detached from the contemporary soundscape. Other, higher-profile releases will command the lion’s share of media noise in the coming months, but Clockdust is the sort of record whose myriad soothing charms and subtle depths will continue to resonate far beyond the click-bait.