The recording of Richard Swift’s fourth album The Atlantic Ocean began in Wilco’s loft recording studio in Chicago, on a vintage analogue tape machine purchased from Jeff Tweedy himself. And true to the Californian singer-songwriter’s pattern thus far, the album is typical, classy polished singer-songwriter pop. Swifts previous efforts, particularly 2007’s Dressed Up For the Letdown were well-received ’70s-style piano pop records, which had him heralded as a sort of Nilsson re-incarnate, and I found it hard to argue with that. He’s one of those songwriters you could just see sitting down at a piano on a whim and could just twinkle out a new playful pop melody without effort.
The Atlantic Ocean opens with the title track, and for all its bouncy synth-powered pop it’s a bit underwhelming and leaves a hefty amount of room for improvement. Things do improve with “The Original Thought,” a Sesame Street-style jaunty sing-along with lyrics reminiscent of Tom Waits: “Sometimes you lose sometimes you win/ I wanna drink until I’m broke and then just see what kind of shit we get in.” Sound good? It is. “Ballad of Old What’s His Name” is backed by a diverse buddy list boasting Ryan Adams, Sean Lennon and Mark Ronson. It’s lovely, especially when the all-star backing vocalists give their money’s worth. This is where the fun ends though.
Swift has described this record as `Prince sitting in on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band Sessions.’ This is pretty much spot on, and sounds exciting, but it’s not really. Plastic Ono Band, for all its acclaim, attains classic status as it’s Lennon’s `break-up with Paul’ record, and has occasional moments of Lennon genius, and is performed by Lennon who pours his bloody guts into a song. You throw Prince into the mix and you get a very talented composer/songwriter who performs with (what’s the opposite of guts?)…you know what I mean. I think of this hybrid and cringe. If you actually want to hear what a Prince/Plastic Ono love child sounds like when done well, skip to “Lady Luck,” the final track. For a real treat, you could even throw Sly and the Family Stone into the love-in. The sad thing though, is that overall this record sounds like the bad love child, weak and without anything as remotely catchy as “The Ballad of John and Yoko” or “Across the Universe,” or in Richard Swift’s case “The Songs of National Freedom” or “Kisses for the Misses.” And being sung nicely doesn’t save it. Not like Lennon saved Plastic by screaming about his mother or working class heroes.
“R.I.P.” and “The First Time” sound like castaways from the Dressed Up For The Letdown sessions, “Bat Coma Motown” is okay, familiar Swift and a nice break from the forgettable mid-section. It is worth mentioning “Lady Luck” again, the Plastic Prince (hurrah! A new genre is born) tribute which is classy.
I’ve always felt that Richard Swift was more of a McCartney—well-crafted delightful tunes that suited a light, non-stretched voice. I even thought he’d like that. Maybe he still does, just not on this record. The wonderful thing about Swift’s first three albums was the great, great songwriting, and those great, great melodies. That’s what’s missing here, great songs and great melodies. It’s a pity, really, because I like Richard Swift a lot and would have championed this before even hearing it. It hurts to say this but The Atlantic Ocean truly is a disappointment.