I have a weird fixation with certain eras of artists’ careers that involve taking risks, in the process often coming up with creative gold despite those stylistic detours being taken less seriously. Some examples of this include Vegas-era Elvis, disco-era Kiss, new wave-era Alice Cooper, hair metal Celtic Frost—we could keep going. What worked in all these cases was that they remained true to who they were, and their sound could be heard even when taking this sharp left turn into another genre. However, it often happens well over three albums into a band’s career. This makes 40 Watt Sun’s turn toward folk on Perfect Light, in some ways, even more jarring if you are a fan of the UK doom metal group’s first album, The Inside Room—you probably came here expecting more metal. Yet there were clues that might not always be the case; 2016’s Wider Than the Sky backed off of the overt metal guitar tones and built in a transition toward something different, with Patrick Walker’s vocals the common factor bridging their first record to the present.
Taking into consideration that this is the first album from 40 Watt Sun created without the structure of a formal band, it makes perfect sense. The Pink Floyd-like strum of guitar might still hold a measure of melancholy, but it also factors into why this album is not as dark or depressing as their prior records. The fact that it works as well as it does in the context of Walker and company’s previous two records speaks to the raw honesty infused into the songwriting. There is more percussion in second song “Behind My Eyes,” providing needed movement and sounding a bit like it could be an outtake from R.E.M’s Automatic for the People. It’s thoughtful, but not dark.
“Until” doesn’t read as rock music. There is a barbed flinching of pain that gives it its edge, yet it smolders where rock ignites. Walker’s often reedy tenor has more feeling here, whereas in the past his voice provided a contrast to the more dismal tone of the clanging guitar, not as exposed for scrutiny as it is with this stripped-down arrangement. By comparison, a song like “Colours” comes across as somewhat quaint, while “The Spaces In Between” is on the more balladic side of folk, but with more going on sonically.
“Raise Me Up” brings back the longing in Walker’s voice, wherein his phrasing is stronger than his pipes. The musical approach on this album makes it more of a challenge for him to sing to his strengths, when in the past that strength was to be the calm in the storm. Without the gale force winds, that contrast becomes much subtler. The production throughout Perfect Light brings out how impassioned Walker’s performances are, and how much he means every note that’s sung and every string he strums. His lyrics are very real and this is where he was at the time it was recorded. There’s no denying that the change in approach is a bit unexpected, but the intent projected into these songs is fully reflected in that sound. For listeners steeped in the band’s early doom, just know that this is a very different 40 Watt Sun than what you’re used to.