Album Review: Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring

What if there was a type of glass that could slow down the speed of light such that, when you look through it, it always portrayed a scene two or five or maybe ten years prior? What scene would you choose: a far away mountain landscape for your Manhattan flat, a particular Christmas morning, a golden year with a loved one since lost?

Irish writer Bob Shaw explores this fictional idea in his short story “Light of Other Days”, calling such an invention ‘slow glass’. Here’s the catch: Slow glass does not freeze time perpetually; it only slows it down. Eventually the past scenes catch up with present time and the glass fades to black. Would it be worth it to invest in such a thing?  Would it provide joy or sorrow?

Peaceful the World Lays Me Down, Noah and the Whale’s 2008 release, was largely the soundtrack to a dreamlike sequence. Hand in hand with a love on a warm sunny day through a small town carnival, marshmallow clouds overhead and cotton candy sweetness dissolving on the tongue when the town marching band (Sufjan Stevens conducting) joins in the troupe down the middle of Main Street, as the occasional clown on unicycle rolls by and all the balloons float to freedom.

If that was Peaceful, then The First Days of Spring is the same town, barren and abandoned the Monday morning after. Quieted, lonely pavement, lifeless balloons once heavenward unable to lift themselves from the sidewalk as the candy wrappers roll like tumbleweed across the asphalt. It’s the narration of a long gaze through “slow glass” at the dissolve of a relationship, from joyful dreamlike beginning to heartbreaking end.

In 2008, Justin Vernon emerged to droves of fans and critical acclaim after a wounded retreat to the winter wood. His offering as Bon Iver was the chilly, mournful For Emma Forever Ago. With Spring, Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink does a similar thing and catches it hard from some critics and fans that are put off and crying the album is a self-indulgent breakup fest. Okay, so what if it is. Welcome to art where most of the good stuff is borne out of intense love or the loss of it, or in this case, both. The beauty of this album is the band is realistic and honest about sadness and sorrow without complete loss of hope.  It comes pretty close, at moments, but never quite looses it.

Naturally with this sort of subject material, Spring sends Noah and the Whale’s ship on a turn for the melancholy. This isn’t completely new ground as it’s close to a seamless transition, musically and lyrically, from the last track on Peaceful, “Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered” where Fink sings: “I fell in love with the world in you and now I feel cold.”

The opening and title track, “First Days of Spring”, takes a cool minute and a half to reveal the thesis of the album: “It’s the first day of spring and my life is starting over again.” Littered with mournful string interludes, dark percussion and pensive guitar riffs, the layers build suspense into a bursting, epic crescendo worthy of a horseback entrance by William Wallace. It’s the standout track and conveys gravity of the narrative beginning to unfold.

“Our Window” is the ambiguous and unresolved four a.m. breakup talk that travels in circles, getting nowhere very slowly while avoiding eye contact: “…and the stars shining through our window, and it’s been a while since I stared at the stars.” Opening super sadly until the thematic light piano taps (which you hear on multiple other tracks) resuscitate life into the song.

“I Have Nothing” is wistful, woe-is-me, maybe you made a mistake, please take me back, and yes, it’s a pity party. “My Broken Heart” is a list of regrets set to a tinny and electric sound — the most predominant characteristic of the sophomoric sound of the band, currently billing as Doug Fink (drums), Tom Hobden (fiddle), and Urby Whale (bass). Noticeably absent is the voice of teenage songbird Laura Marling who flew away to a solo career. Vocals notwithstanding, she actually permeates every track as purveyor of Fink’s heartbreak.

Next, the first of two “Instrumental” begins with the sounds of an orchestral warm up and wastes no time with a triumphant return to the catchy, whimsical, super hopeful sounds of the band’s previous work. “Instrumental I” sets up for flamboyant and super fun “Love of an Orchestra”. A choir carries Fink, our protagonist, in a break from the self-loathing with a satirical self-chiding and call to recovery: “If you gotta run, run from hope…there’s no need for despair, I’m carrying all the love of an orchestra.”

The recovery is short lived. Church bells ring and a dark, seductive guitar solo of “Instrumental II”, does its job to lead the listener into the regretful, broken “Stranger”. “Stranger” is the rebound we might need but never want to be. The lyrics are brutally honest: “Last night I slept with a stranger / For the first time, since you’ve gone / Regretfully lying naked, I reflect on what I’ve done… I’m a fox trapped in the headlights  / and I’m waiting, for the tyres to spin over me.” Lots of gals dream of being the subject of a musician’s song but precisely not this type of song. Poor thing if she’s out there. Shame and angst filled as it is, listeners may find solace in the dungeon. Thankfully, this is rock bottom.

In “Blue Skies” our narrative turns the corner from past to present and begins to look outward from self loathing to the world around, filled with others suffering the same fate: “This is a song for anyone with a broken heart / This is a song for anyone who can’t get out of bed,” and ends on a hopeful reminder, self coaching mantra “But blue skies are coming, But I know that it’s hard.”

Accompanying the album is a film by the same title, putting Noah in the boat with The Swell Season as recent musicians who create a semi-autobiographical, low budget film and accompanying soundtrack. Youngsters with this much multifaceted creativity will probably be around for a while if they pace themselves well. The lyrics and riff in “Blue Skies” carries throughout the album beginning to end, a trait giving merit to the continual, narrative achievement.

“Slow Glass” ends the struggle with self-actualization: “In fact we’re almost strangers and I don’t know how, but I’ve been looking through slow, slow glass.” It seems Fink, like most of us, needed the time of reflection if he was going to move into the future.  We get the treat of hearing the music change and evolve as this band of twenty-somethings grows up and lives life, experiencing and exploring the universal ideas of love and loss. He also shows some literary chops if the reference is indeed to Shaw’s short story.

According to their own claim, during happier times of Peaceful, “You don’t know how it feels to be alive until you know how it feels to die,” Charlie Fink and band should feel more alive now than ever. Anyone who has ever felt the same will enjoy, in the most melancholy and lamentable way possible, The First Days of Spring.

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