The first thing worth noting about Simon Bookish is his name—it’s not just a name, the man is highbrow to the point of nearly caricature. He’s practically a New Yorker comic strip. The next thing worth noting is that his new album, Everything/Everything, is dubbed as a “big band song cycle about science and information,” which most assuredly reinforces my first point. And lastly, on the cover of Everything/Everything, Bookish has an almost Matthew Lesko-like appearance, dressed in a graphic blazer and thick glasses, while arranging the table of the elements on the desk before him.
Given these nuggets of information, Bookish (née Leo Chadburn) might seem painfully nerdy, yet the London-based songwriter and composer is blessed with a commanding and cool voice like that of Scott Walker or Jarvis Cocker, and a breathtaking knack for chaotically powerful songcraft that’s at once dignified and dramatic. A majestic onslaught of fanfare opens suspenseful leadoff track “The Flood,” an electro-pop showtune celebrating the “myriad mythologies” and a “deluge of all known facts and figures.” In its orchestral breakdowns and odd linear structure, “The Flood” shows off Chadburn’s affinity for sweeping arrangements and unconventional approach, which most certainly sets it apart from just about anything else released in 2008.
“Dumb Terminal” operates in a much more subdued fashion than “The Flood,” yet erupts halfway into a chaotic breakdown, beginning with a mischievous spatter of clarinet. Yet “Portrait of the Artist as a Fountain” drones, Stereolab-style, with horns bubbling up like carbon dioxide through beakers, and ultimately becomes a stunning Reich-ian dance jam that’s both bizarre and musically stunning. “Carbon” name drops Buckminster Fuller in one of the album’s most upbeat and adrenaline-pumping anthems throughout its 41-minute duration. More complex rhythms abound on “Victorinox,” while the RenFaire ethereality of “Il Trionfo del Tempo” has a bit of “Stonehenge” in its harp-plucking schlock. Simon Bookish makes up for this descent into over-nerdiness with “Synchrotron,” as stellar a pop song as one will find on a song cycle about science (though Chadburn is quick to croon “this is not astrology“). And just when the song seems as cool as it gets initially, it bursts into a mesmerizing choreography of horns during the chorus, setting a new melodic peak.
Simon Bookish is as much a character as he is a musical persona, but whatever amount of schtick he may wield, it’s not enough to get in the way of a great album. Everything/Everything is one of 2008’s most pleasant surprises. It’s witty, it’s catchy, and it’s one of the most musically innovative collections to emerge in the often-conservative indie rock realm. Of course, whether you really want to call this `rock’ is another matter, entirely.
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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.