Next Tuesday (February 24), as I’ve probably mentioned before, we have Richard Swift playing Club Uncut, so it strikes me as professionally exigent to get to grips today with his new album, “The Atlantic Ocean”.
It’s very good, actually. Last summer, I blogged about Swift’s free download EP, “Ground Trouble Jaw”, which marked something of a return towards his wry piano balladeering after a bunch of crotchety experiments in the wake of his magnificently doomed major label album, “Dressed Up For The Letdown”.
“The Atlantic Ocean” finds Swift back in the comforting hands of Secretly Canadian, and very much back on track. Three tracks from “Ground Trouble Jaw” fetch up here: two that I particularly drew attention to last time, “The Original Thought” and “A Song For Milton Feher”, plus the sweet Motown pastiche, “Lady Luck”. The squitting old synth that runs through “The Original Thought” is a recurring texture here, spraying around the olde-time rinky-dink of Swift’s piano playing.
Initially, it’s a bit jarring, but gradually the sound starts to make sense, as a characteristically perverse twist on his early ‘70s Nilsson schtick. The title track (which I referred to last time as “I Am The Ocean”, from a live gig three years ago) is a pulsating show of Swift’s skill, a surging, beaty, artful piece that’s as catchy as anything he’s yet written.
Mostly, the album seems to have been recorded in Wilco’s loft by Swift with the assistance of one of Sufjan Stevens’ myriad multi-instrumental underlings, Casey Foubert. The big exception is what we might tentatively call an all-star jam, “Ballad Of Old What’s His Name”, with Wilco’s Pat Sansone on bass, Sean Lennon channelling George Harrison, amusingly, on lead guitar, and a usefully unrecognisable Ryan Adams on backing vocals. That this shipload of supporting players – and the guest production of Mark Ronson, of all people – doesn’t change Swift’s vibe at all is quite an achievement.
It’s testament, I guess, to the strength of Swift’s immensely strong musical character, a bleary-eyed gentleman of the piano, marooned halfway between Tin Pan Alley and the Lost Weekend. Like its predecessors, “The Atlantic Ocean” is a compact, beautifully-realised collection of finely-wrought songs. Everything is just-so, evidently the work of a craftsman with a vivid and satisfying idea of how his records should sound.
If there’s a caveat, though, it’s that I can’t help feeling he has the capacity to make a genuinely extraordinary record, and consequently, the arrival of another one which is merely very good seems, weirdly, like something of an anti-climax. As it plays now, with “The First Time”, a driving mix of banjo, Bollywoodish strings and sleek glam guitar (or now, as I edit, with the swaying elegy of “The End Of An Age”), it seems churlish to criticise such a fine album. But Swift remains teetering on the edge of real greatness; hopefully next time he’ll entirely fulfil his promise.