Hayden Thorpe’s voice has always floated toward faraway realms. As the keystone of art rock quartet Wild Beasts, his dusky countertenor elevated the group’s fierce, churning sounds into something lithe and thrilling. In the wake of the group’s disbandment, Thorpe’s pivot to solo crooning on 2019’s Diviner found him working with gentler textures, while striving for the same elegant transcendence. Yet Thorpe’s work in both arenas has never felt especially delicate or detached; as a frontman, he’s a mighty, surprisingly rooted force. His voice coos and glides above it all, but he still exudes a kind of pragmatic working-man’s approach to his art-making—coupling flights of fancy with deft execution; head in the clouds, feet on the ground.
On his second solo release, Moondust for My Diamond, Thorpe stretches this high-low duality to taut extremes. The album unspools with the wide scope (and self-awareness) of a lucid dream: blissful, meticulously layered, occasionally dopey, wholly present. Thorpe expands his lyrical focus too—while Diviner gazed inward, Moondust For My Diamond’s vision is vast and mystic. Against a musical backdrop that’s equal parts jangly and glitchy, Thorpe roves through earthly delights and muses on cosmic consciousness. It’s big, heady stuff, but many of the songs (e.g. “Parallel Kingdom” and “Metafeeling”) make the album’s otherworldly concerns easy to glean, and surprisingly pleasurable.
Moondust’s vision-quest vibe was partially inspired by long journeys Thorpe made through the mountains of England’s Lake District during the recording process. In a statement accompanying the record, Thorpe shares: “Moving by foot, up into the cloud line gives me a weightlessness of mind… [i]t’s a lifetime’s work to capture just a fraction of that sensation.” The track that comes the closest to doing so is the galvanizing “The Universe Is Always Right,” which crests serenely upward through a quiet rush of acoustic guitars and high whistling synths. “Golden Ratio” flows with a similar bracing energy, finding curious links between (super)natural worlds: “Giant boulder, fall through infinity/backyard children, on a trampoline/tomorrow’s mysteries slowly reveal/I’ll be dancing.” In one of Moondust’s most artful musical gestures, the song also makes dazzling use of a single understated oboe in its finale—spinning out from the small center of a spiraled electronic soundscape, and eventually fading into an alluring sax solo, like some ancient thread of time surging through a wormhole.
Thorpe’s closest analog in making Moondust For My Diamond might be post-Genesis, early solo-era Peter Gabriel. On more than one occasion, Gabriel rooted his work in the primordial wonders of the British countryside—perhaps most notably, seeking cosmic inspiration atop the earthen mounds of “Solsbury Hill” and (like Thorpe) clearing his head in the wake of separating from his band. Gabriel knew how to pair unabashed awe and his restless artistic experiments with grooves that could truly make you dance. Thorpe shares these twin ambitions, but he doesn’t always hit the mark on weaving both together smoothly here. “Where are we in time?” Thorpe intones limply in the breakdown of “Suspended Animation.” It’s a valid question, since the track seems desperate to wiggle around more, trapped in chilly production and faux-funkiness. Elsewhere, “Supersensual” has the opposite problem, with Thorpe awkwardly shaking his own plumage: “We ride it out/we have a ritual/we make a miracle.” Though he may be trying to conjure up some deep primal force, the track ends up feeling klutzy and exposed, with its mid-tempo clacking backbeat and an odd, droopy keyboard lead that kills the mood. This is not a super-sexy ritual to which we need bear witness. (The super-sibilant way that Thorpe pronounces the song’s title—“sewper-sin-sew-uhl”— is also worthy of a few church giggles.)
Despite these two diversions, Moondust for My Diamond absolutely finds its alchemy—and some brilliant pointillist grooves—in other moments. “Rational Heartache” features a propulsive cycle of upright piano and warbling synths, moving in and out of phase with a kind of satisfying haze. And though its lyrics are deliberately practical, opening track “Material World” is Moondust’s most stunning slow-burner, containing universes unto itself. “It’s only real if I make it,” Thorpe entreats six times with mantra-like focus, as the song plunges into a fortifying instrumental chorus resembling Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” or even Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” When Thorpe occasionally moves mountains like this—bridging worlds with one lean vocal turn, or a single transcendent drop—the results are practical magic.
Ben Easton is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He's a member/producer of the rock quartet The Academy Blues Project, with whom he has made six records, and plays Live Piano Karaoke in-residence at Sid Gold's Request Room, New York City's flagship modern piano bar. Beyond Treble, Easton is a staff writer at Cover Me Songs, the web publication devoted to cover music of all genres.