Release Date: May 6, 2013
Record label: Mercury
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Under Charlie Fink's leadership, Twickenham's N&TW have evolved from T-shirted indie-folksters to preppy, drivetime rock band, going platinum with their last album, 2011's Last Night on Earth. That record saw Fink's Lou Reed-lite vocals fronting a nimble, coming-of-age 80s pop sound, and it's much the same on this fourth: filmic, Springsteen-inspired vignettes – young lovers absconding into the night, boys learning to be men – set to taut basslines, jaunty classical strings and streamlined guitars, recorded live for extra punch. They aim for nostalgia and wind-in-hair buoyancy, and manage the balance sweetly throughout, tipping into a triumphantly sappy guitar solo on All Through the Night.
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.
Throughout their career, indie folk outfit Noah and the Whale have undergone many transitions from record to record that have allowed them to grow and mature, from their early young-and-in-love debut, to the achingly beautiful break-up album The First Days of Spring. Their fourth record, Heart of Nowhere, is no different and follows the groundwork put in place by their third outing Last Night on Earth. The entire record rides on uplifting, '80s-inspired, radio-friendly melodies that belie the still troubled Charlie Fink, whose intimately personal lyrics are perhaps closer to the truth than the names given on "One More Night" and "Still After All These Years" would suggest.
Time has served Noah And The Whale well. For frontman Charlie Fink, life since 2008 might not have been all sunshine, whistling and fun, fun, fun, like it was in the chintzy video for the London band’s debut single ‘5 Years Time’, but after the weep-fest of 2009’s ‘The First Days Of Spring’ and the sleek Americana of ‘Last Night On Earth’ in 2011, the band emerge with fourth album ‘Heart Of Nowhere’. It’s a record of rare precision; the kind that comes from figuring out exactly what you want.
Noah & The Whale are a band that have mysteriously been overlooked, or well, just plain forgotten from the Mumford / Marling era of nu-folk, despite once being its early forerunners; poster-children for anything whimsical and twee. Maybe it was in the wake of their tweeness that the dust of Mumford or beauty of Marling was allowed to stride ahead, while Charlie Fink and co were content to laze around in the cutesy bottom drawers of indie. They have though continued to pen some rather marvellous tunes over the past few years.
“It was only a few years ago but it feels like a lifetime,” sings Noah And The Whale’s lead singer Charlie Fink on new song Lifetime. While it’s in the context of a youthful relationship, it’s easy to imagine that he means 2008 when the so-called ‘nu-folk’ scene started to take off in the UK, seeing the release of debut albums from both Noah And The Whale and Charlie’s one-time girlfriend Laura Marling as well as the first EP from Mumford And Sons. Five years later, the latter band are globe-conquering monsters with sales on a par with stadium-filling acts like Coldplay and U2 while Marling enjoys widespread acclaim for her ever more literate and intricate folk, even picking up an improbable Brit Award for her efforts.
Noah and the Whale have grown up noticeably on record, their debut's fresh-faced whimsy succeeded by albums of lost love confessionals and then Radio 2-friendly grooves. Their fourth is a satisfying blend of youth and experience, at its best when raw feelings and twenty20-something anxieties chafe against its smooth, midtempo rock. Lifetime sidesteps nostalgia to reflect on life decisions starting to feel irreversible.
Noah and the Whale’s debut album Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down was chock full of charmless whimsy and derivative Wes Anderson-straddling imagery (their name was inspired by the Noah Baumbach-directed, Anderson-produced The Squid and the Whale) but it certainly arrived at the right time. In 2008, cutesy indie folk was the bomb-- thanks, Juno-- so the group’s use of the entire twee pop toolkit, banjo, ukulele, glockenspiel et al, gave them instant appeal. Five years and a couple of stylistic rebirths later, Noah and the Whale remain a big draw on the European festival circuit.
The video for Heart Of Nowhere’s first single, “There Will Come a Time”, is a sort-of trailer for the album’s accompanying short film, which Noah & the Whale frontman Charlie Fink recently said the band plans to screen at their upcoming shows. Opening text reads, “Sometime not far from now, it was decided that adolescents were detrimental to a well-functioning society. Teenagers were quarantined onto an island within the city, colloquially known as teenland.” Thus, the tone is set and the theme declared for this English band’s fourth studio album.
There are few mainstream chart propositions that have managed to subtly – though no less effectively – re-imagine themselves over each successive record quite like Noah And The Whale. First we had the whimsical, cutesy ‘Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down’, then the widescreen quasi-concept record of ‘The First Days Of Spring’ before 2011’s punchy synth-laden ‘Last Night On Earth’. Each, while stylistically different, were blessed with a genuine songwriting nous and so you can’t help but approach fourth effort ‘Heart Of Nowhere’ with a sense of intrigue.