Noah and the Whale ‘Heart of Nowhere’ – Review

15 May
“In five years time I might not know you / In five years time we may not speak.” This was Noah and the Whale at the climax of their only hit song, coincidently released five years ago this summer. Charlie Fink (the singer/songwriter of the band) may well have been considering his position in the fickle pop industry, because Noah and the Whale were never a band people expected to last. Everything about them was very much of the moment – their tunes were youthful, sparkling and belonged to a very specific scene. But even though ‘Five Years Time’ is the song they’re destined to be remembered for, Noah and his gang have created a pretty interesting oeuvre since. Two top ten albums on from that debut they’ve grown into an accomplished, seasoned rock act. They may not have experienced the commercial or critical success of their scene mates (Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons) but they’ve done pretty well for themselves nonetheless.
Their previous records have explored different links in the folk-rock chain; from the melancholy acoustics of ‘First Days of Spring’ to the Springstein-esque bombast of ‘Last Night on Earth’. One thing that binds them all together is their preoccupation with quite particular shades of nostalgia. ‘Heart of Nowhere‘ is no different; recording for the new album started after band leader Charlie Fink found out an old friend was getting married and with this came the realisation that he was getting older, and not necessarily wiser. Nostalgia trickles down to the colour tinted photo and layout of the cover to the ‘purple rain’ guitar pedals used throughout the album. It’s a different kind of longing to before though. On the still brilliant ‘First Days of Spring’ Fink was a remorseful character bemoaning the breakdown of a relationship. On ‘Last Night on Earth’ he was casting his eye fondly on the freedom and escapism of his youth. His outlook on ‘Heart of Nowhere’ is more bittersweet; he doesn’t have a particularly pessimistic worldview, but he’s certainly a confused young man weighing up his place in the world.
Despite a change in tone and outlook, the band essentially follow the same formula as last time around. ‘Heart of Nowhere is therefore the first Noah and the Whale record to feel slightly redundant and repetitive. To put it simply, these are ten upbeat songs about putting he past behind you. There is nothing remotely essential that you get from this album that you won’t have already found on ‘Last Night on Earth’. More damagingly, there is nothing that comes close to matching the musical highlights of their back catalogue. ‘There Will Come a Time’ is a weak first single compared to ‘Blue Skies’ or ‘L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N’. The hook (treated to U2 stadium sized reverb) is unworthy and the chorus is basically a melodic extension of the unmemorable verse.
The album starts on an equally underwhelming note. ‘Intro’ is as pointless and bland as its name suggests and the title track, featuring Anna Calvi, is trite and uninteresting (it seems to set up the story for short-film of the same name as featured on the bonus dvd). Nothing on here stinks but  the album never sets your heart racing. Even the more interesting and original songs could pass for cover versions of long-forgotten songs from 1980’s NOW compilations.
Which is not to say that it’s without strengths. Noah and the Whale are as endearingly melodic and enthusiastic as you remember. This is an album from the heart for people who think that subtlety is overrated. ‘Still After All These Years’ features the same ‘Lisa‘ who popped up on the last album, and it’s a catchy little soft-rock number that recalls a laid-back Tom Petty. ‘Silver and Gold’ is built around a convincing Neil Young metaphor that would lose some of its magic if I were to elaborate on it here. Moments like this make ‘Heart of Nowhere’ a worthwhile listen. Perhaps the most memorable part of the album comes when Fink sings “I can spend a lifetime searching for someone to blame / and don’t look back, don’t feel ashamed.” It‘s a good hook, but you can’t help feeling that he should take a little more of his own advice. ‘Heart of nowhere’ is just about good enough, but another album of bitter-sweet nostalgia would be overkill.
Going back to ‘Five Years Time; it ended with the observation that “In Five years time you might just prove me wrong.” The genius of that song was that it was optimistic and realistic. It was youthful and innocent but completely self aware. It lived in the moment where the songs on the new album reflect on a moment passed. ‘Heart of Nowhere’ is likeable but it doesn’t feel necessary or innovative. It’s fitting to think back to the criticism Noah and the Whale received in 2008 – their debut ‘Peaceful the World Lays Me Down’ was almost unbearably twee, but it was much better than many of those reviews would have had you believe. The fact that they’re still here, still making records, still a part of the conversation, feels in itself like a small vindication. It feels like Noah and the Whale have proved doubters wrong. And so they aren’t offering any predictions about where they’ll be in five years from now – but you’d be a fool to bet against them.


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