“Where are we going?” asks Graham Nash, gazing quizzically into the distance, in the title track of his first solo album in 14 years. This Path Tonight is full of similar philosophical musings – “And the question haunting me/Is my future just my past?” he ponders in Myself At Last, “What will I do when the morning is here?/Will I see what the world has to show me?” he puzzles in Fire Down Below.
Co-written with guitarist and producer Shayne Fontayne, this collection of ten delicately crafted, largely acoustic tracks is an impressive addition to a catalogue that stretches back decades to The Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Nash keeps arrangements simple and uncluttered, allowing the focus to remain on the prettiness of his melodies and the messages in the lyrics. Golden Days looks back on his past, “in a band, made up of my friends”, and wonders where the sentiment “all you need is love” has gone from modern pop music.
The whole of This Path Tonight eloquently makes the case for a gentler, more thoughtful world.
Fans of Ben Watt’s solo output had a long wait for him to return to his troubadour roots. Hendra, his 2014 album, came out more than 30 years after he topped the UK independent chart with its predecessor North Marine Drive.
In between, of course, came Everything But The Girl with his wife Tracey Thorn and a decade at the helm of the electronic label Buzzin’ Fly.
Fever Dream continues the partnership he forged so fruitfully with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler on Hendra, adding the folk-jazz touches of drummer and percussionist Martin Ditcham, he played on Talk Talk’s landmark album Spirit of Eden, and double bass player Rex Horan, who featured on Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle.
The difference here is the tone. Where Hendra was for the most part warm and open-hearted, Fever Dream is, initially at least, more troubled, reflecting, as Watt explains in his press notes, the fact that “close friends were falling apart” and his own relationships “were being tested”.
“I found I wanted to capture smaller snapshots about how love shifts over time, what endures, how we cope. And they became songs,” he explains.
Thus the first half of the record is heavier, with prominent distorted electric guitar. Women’s Company fumes at the figure of a workaholic absentee father: “He remained a silent ghost/I can’t think what I missed the most/Sentimental stuff most probably.”
In the second half the riffs become smoother and the mood mellows. Running With The Front Runners has an Isley Brothers-like optimism, “Hope can fade but just when it all seems lost can be found again,” he sings in Never Goes Away. New Year of Grace, with US singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, rounds the album off on a dreamy, ethereal note and the plea: “Oh my love, now please do not forget all years we have known.”
Fever Dream is another mature gem.
Latterday Pet Shop Boys albums may not have captured the zeitgeist in quite the same way that Please and Actually did in the mid-1980s but Neil Tennant remains an astute and witty chronicler of modern culture.
In The Pop Kids, the lead single from their 13th studio album, he looks back from the perspective of students in the early 90s: “We were young but imagined/We were so sophisticated/Telling everyone we knew/That rock was overrated.”
The attempts at EDM dance grooves – Groovy, Pazzo!, Inner Sanctum – are less lovable, even if they are done with a raised eyebrow, but when they slip into the minor key melancholy of The Dictator Decides the Pet Shop Boys again show that they really are one of the great synth pop acts. Who else could conjure lines such as: “The joke is I’m not even a demagogue/Have you heard me give a speech?/My facts are invented/I sound so demented/So deluded it beggars belief.”
Twenty-something skewers the contemporary go-getter (“Will your ideas ever trend?”) while Sad Robot World considers the omnipresence of technology in modern life (“Doing as commanded/24 hours every day”).
Super is not one of the Pet Shop Boys’ consistently great albums but it certainly has its moments.
Right on time for Shakespeare Week, Rufus Wainwright commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death with an album that sets nine of his sonnets to music.
The project had its genesis in 2009 when the Canadian singer-songwriter was asked to compose music for Robert Wilson’s Shakespeare’s Sonnets production first staged at the Berliner Ensemble. A year later Wainwright was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to orchestrate five of the sonnets and three appeared on his 2010 album Songs For Lulu.
Reuniting with the producer Marius de Vries, with whom he worked on the epic Want One and Want Two albums, Wainwright has drafted in the likes of Sian Phillips, Florence Welch, his sister Martha and opera singer Anna Prohaska to help him realise classical/pop crossover versions of poems such as of A Woman’s Face, Take All My Loves and When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes.
But it’s the recitations of Hollywood stars Helena Bonham-Carter, Carrie Fisher and William Shatner that are likely to command most attention.
It’s a curious mixture of the grandiose, the theatrical, the arty and the reflective that at times is as head scratching as it’s impressive, but perhaps Wainwright intended it to be that way. Happy anniversary, Mr Shakespeare.