Twenty years into his career, Robert Wratten returns with another reliably disarming record.
For over twenty years, Robert Wratten has made music from the loss and longing of rejected affection. This obsessive refinement of heartbreaking beauty runs through his first foray with the Field Mice, his return as Northern Picture Library, and on into today with Trembling Blue Stars. Along the way, Wratten has rightfully assumed some degree of notoriety. His singular affinity for willfully affable melodies and unabashed earnestness establishes him as a precursor to more successful successors like the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie.
Most of this esteem stems from Wratten's relatively short time with the Field Mice. With their catalogue lovingly reissued to renewed acclaim in 2005 and their inclusion in the celebratory recompiling of C86 the following year, the Field Mice continue to cast an expanding shadow over the rest of Wratten's career.
If it seems unfair that his more unfocused early work still detracts from over a decade as Trembling Blue Stars, it also illustrates a notion Wratten has revisited many times: absence and fondness are almost always reciprocal. Trembling Blue Stars lack the ephemeral allure of the Field Mice partly because they never really went away. Hardly altering the template already refined over several releases, Wratten returns again with The Last Holy Writer.
Forgoing his tendency to start off too strong, Wratten errs on the other side this time with a plodding opener. Prior Trembling Blue Stars albums suffered from peaking too early before giving way to more morose and less notable compositions. Conversely, "By False Lights" is overly long and never builds so much as it slogs through its brooding duration. Crawling along to an unflattering Gothic dirge, "Darker, Colder, Slower" and "Sacred Music" suffer similar fates. While well suited to the stained glass and black background of the album artwork, these songs don't quite agree with Wratten's rather plain voice or producer Ian Catt's electronic-infused chamber pop arrangements. For an artist already known for being particularly down, that exaggeration of temperament isn't as devastating as it is boring.
It's not all doom and drag, though. There are chiming moments of bustling pop made that much more sprightly by the gloomy pallor surrounding them. "Idyllwild" burst forth with another endearing vocal performance from frequent collaborator Beth Arzy while "November Starlings" allows Wratten a chance to sing over the sort of shimmering jangle he usually reserves for female vocalists.
Between these highs and lows are the pretty yet otherwise unexceptional songs that make up the majority of the Trembling Blue Stars repertoire. Songs like "Say Goodbye to the Sea" are openly pleasant and direct but just as humble and forgettable. However much of a liability it may seem, that inherent humility accounts for a lot of Wratten's appeal. His resistance to grandeur and bombast only underscores his emphasis on earnestness. It may not make for anything all that striking, but it imparts his work with reassuring familiarity. As unassuming as any prior effort, The Last Holy Writer proves reliably disarming.