Saturday, March 26, 2016

Charlie Simpson - Long Road Home

To say Charlie Simpson has had an interesting career arc is an understatement. Anyone who goes from boy-band to alt-metal outfit to solo singer/songwriter is clearly a versatile talent. Three summers ago, that versatility—coupled with what can only be described as Simpson’s “still haven’t found what I’m looking for” mentality—brought us one of the best pop-folk records in recent memory. The record in question, the gorgeously pastoral Young Pilgrim, showed that Simpson had a knack for wistful lyrics, rousing hooks, lush harmonies, dusky folk tunes, and anthemic closing numbers. Fast forward three years, transpose most of those descriptors onto Long Road Home, and you have a pretty good idea of what Charlie Simpson’s second full-length solo album sounds like.

Indeed, for arguably the first time in his dynamic career, Simpson seems to be adopting the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra for this release. Any of these songs could have been on Young Pilgrim, and while that makes it sound like this English songwriter is stagnating or getting complacent here, that’s not the case. Young Pilgrim was simply that good, and I’d imagine that just about any fan would be happy to return the same well that delivered those songs for a generous second helping.

Most of the same ingredients that made Pilgrim so grand and beautiful are still here. The first (and most obvious) item that Simpson brings back are the harmonies, which drench virtually every song on this record. Provided by Nick Warpole—Simpson’s good friend—and layered or multi-tracked over Charlie’s melodies to the point where you can’t tell where one voice ends and the other begins, the harmonies added a rich otherworldliness to certain tracks on Young Pilgrim. Here, unfortunately, they’re a bit overused, like Simpson read all the praise for that element of his music and decided to double down on it. The harmony fatigue is particularly felt on the title track and album opener, where the verses almost feel stilted and overblown because Simpson and Warpole just lay it on too thick, too fast. A rousing chorus helps to blast through the bedrock and salvage the track, but the song is still a curious choice as an opener, especially after the last album’s commencement—the riveting “Down, Down, Down”—set such a perfect tone for what was to follow.

Luckily, Long Road Home seems to settle in as it goes, whether Simpson is teaching those Mumford guys a thing or two about kick-drum, handclap-driven folk (the propulsive “Comets,” or the shout-along lead single, “Haunted”) or delivering Bon Iver-level triumphs on his most gorgeous song to date (the luminescent “Winter Hymns”). He returns to the Bon Iver influence on “Emily,” where the guitar chords and strumming patterns on the verses may well have been lifted from “Re: Stacks.” And he actually does lift the melody from “What if God Was One of Us” for the rain-soaked “Would You Love Me Any Less,” a song that starts off amidst muted acoustic guitars and melancholy strings, but crescendos gradually to a big, grandiose, piano-pounding conclusion. Harmonies flicker in the backdrop, but for the bulk of the song, Charlie and his melodies are allowed to stand alone at center stage, a factor that helps establish the song as the album’s centerpiece (if not its highlight).

Just like with Young Pilgrim, Long Road Home gets more understated and folk-driven as it goes, concluding with a trio of traditional strummers that sound tailor-made for back-porch jams and campfire confessionals. The first of the suite is “Still Young,” which, in the hands of a pop star or a rock band, could have been a bona fide anthem. Sung by Simpson, the song becomes something arguably more interesting, a sobering rumination on the passage of time that sounds incredibly wise and weathered—especially coming from a guy who won’t even turn 30 until next year. “Tonight lets dance like animals, we are still young enough to hope for more,” he sings on the chorus, which somehow manages to be both gleefully celebratory and crushingly, wistfully sad at the same time. “For all the days we threw away, we’re still young,” he concludes. It’s not quite carpe diem, but it’s close.

The same fragility courses through “Forty Thieves” and “Another Year,” and while the two songs don’t provide the kind of blaring, anthemic conclusion to Long Road Home that “Riverbanks” brought to Young Pilgrim, it’s hard to imagine this particular album ending any other way. From the crisis of faith evident in the first verse of “Forty Thieves” (“Oh God, where are you now? I thought you loved us all the same.”) to the resignation of growing up that manifests itself so eloquently in “Another Year” (“Seems like everyone around here is always changing; did this place ever feel like home?”), this album fades out like it’s meant as a swansong. It isn’t, of course: Charlie has said that he plans to continue with his solo career, perhaps after doing another Fightstar album. But the way “Another Year” comes to a close with a series of piano arpeggios, left unresolved by the song’s final note, it reminds me of how I’ve felt every time I’ve had to leave friends or family or an important place behind, just to keep moving down life’s ever-winding highway. It is, in a word, the perfect way to end this album, and it reaffirms Charlie Simpson’s status as one of the best songwriters working today. Here’s hoping that he continues to make folk albums that are this uncompromisingly gorgeous for many years to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment