Timeless. It’s not a term I use lightly to describe many things, especially when it comes to music. It takes the perfect combination of sincerity, talent, and a truly enjoyable sound for me to even consider placing such a lofty moniker on something as fleeting as pop music, especially in this world of disposable icons (Sorry, Britney, but your 15 minutes are long over). But Manchester’s Stephen Fretwell, at the tender age of 23, has done what many musicians will attempt to achieve throughout their entire careers but most never do: he’s crafted an album that sounds as much at home alongside a great like Bob Dylan as it is next to contemporary singer/songwriters, and should remain relevant as long as people are stepping into soundproof booths and putting sound to tape.
A borrowed guitar from his grandparents began his musical endeavor when Stephen was just a teenager. Two days at Salford University was enough for Mr. Fretwell to realize he’d rather immerse himself in Manchester’s music scene than bury his nose in books. Reaction to his music was immediate, and after gaining a small following in a city known for great music, the release of Magpie finds Stephen Fretwell earmarked for fame. Recorded in London’s Abbey Road Studios, his debut stings with brutal honesty just as it soothes with melodic grace.
“Run” opens with a jaunty piano and brushed drums while Fretwell’s acoustic guitar unfolds what becomes a tale of self-doubt. “Beautiful tree, beautiful tree/ It’s a shame that the root of it’s me,” he croons on what will not be the last touch of melancholic torpor on the album. The somber guitar progression of “Rose,” with harmonies that delicately echo as they weave in and out like specters, imbues the listener with a sense of urgency and as the drums finally kick in and piano emerges from the mist, will have them dangling for a well-deserved crescendo.
With a harmonica solo that closes the fragile and much too short
“Lines,” Stephen is cast into the shadow left by Bob Dylan, and he’s more than able to fill it. The acoustically charged “New York” pierces with escapism with just a sprinkle of lovelorn musing. Desperation ringing from his voice as he sings, “Fuck what they say, fuck it if they talk/ It doesn’t really matter, we’re going to New York,” Fretwell manages to soften the couplet with his outright honesty. Throughout the album, he delivers lyrics not with pretense, but simple truthfulness that strengthens their impact. For as young as he is, his lyrical prowess seems to show he’s faced his share of broken hearts and disappointments. It’s precisely this melancholic and profound undercurrent, which gives Magpies such a timeless quality. Fretwell muses on “What’s That You Say Little Girl,” “Five years go by, and you sit and wonder why/ You didn’t stick to your guns in the first place.” It is a song lamenting unfulfilled potential, something which Fretwell can be sure to avoid as long as he sticks to his own guns by continuing to make albums like this.
Coldplay – Parachutes
Rose Melberg – Cast Away The Clouds
Elbow – Cast Of Thousands