There will always be something appealing about a melancholy young man with a guitar, singing songs of woe over a pretty melody. From Leadbelly to John Lennon to Nick Drake to Elliott Smith, the perturbed, heartbroken troubadour has proven his permanence in the realm of pop music. Though technology may become more advanced and gimmicks may become more novel, the lone songwriter with his acoustic guitar will continue to be an important staple of anyone’s pop music diet. Though his hair may be unkempt, his arrangements simple and his lyrics gloomy, his sound is no less classic and his words no less moving.
Nick Talbot understands this. As Gravenhurst, he has created the type of album that gets worn out from repeated spins on the turntable by lovesick listeners searching for a comforting voice. Though Flashlight Seasons is perfect, no matter how somber or ecstatic the mood. Talbot is a very British songwriter, instantly recalling Drake, though that might be too obvious and common a reference to throw out there so suddenly. Nonetheless, Talbot’s songwriting relies on minor-key melodies wrought with intricate fingerpicking and the slightest bit of Morrissey/Marr influence.
Flashlight Seasons is Talbot’s first release on Warp Records, though there’s nary a drill ‘n’ bass beat or Moog sample to be found. That said, it is wrapped in spooky ambience. However, Talbot’s ambience is built on less synthetic sounds. Instead, Talbot uses melodica, organ and reverb for added eerie effect. In fact, a creepy, whirring organ sound is what starts the album off, in “Tunnels.” A brushed drum beat shuffles underneath, while Talbot’s angelic falsetto and acoustic guitar enter shortly thereafter. “Fog Round the Figurehead,” however, sounds much more in tune with the crème of today’s Britpop crop. It’s a catchy but somber waltz that sounds like an outtake from The Doves’ Last Broadcast or a clinically depressed version of The Delays.
“I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor” is one of the angrier moments on the album, as Talbot sings, “The East-end rogue you so admire/is a murdering fuckhead.” But he uses vulgarity in such an eloquent fashion, it almost goes unnoticed. Almost. “Bluebeard” follows, the most obvious homage to Morrissey and Marr. Like a Lithium-induced version of “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” it’s yet another catchy tune that still can’t shake its sinister underpinnings: “The voice inside your head/says stay at home and stare/at the demons that thrive inside.” Despite its morose tone, it does feature some impressive melodica and harmonica harmonization, the likes of which I’ve never heard.
Though all of this may make Gravenhurst sound like the kind of record you only listen to when it rains or when you break up with your steady, it’s the kind of painfully beautiful album that works in any mood. Flashlight Seasons may be a bummer, but it’s the sweetest bummer you’ll hear all year.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.