It’s always nice to be proved wrong. Initially, the thought of an 18-song album made my heart sink a little, but Freddie Stevenson’s record is neither broken nor lacking in quality control. Quite the opposite; it may turn out to be one of your better investments in 2015.
Quasi-conceptual, The Darkening/The Brightening is two halves of the same coin, one engineered on songs that drop a key, the other on songs that raise a key. All eighteen songs combine into a piece of continuous music that perpetuates a journey from the lows of sorrow to the highs of joy and, often, back again. If that sounds forced, it isn’t. In fact, so seamless are the joins and so wonderful the melodies, this surprising album grabs your attention from the opening guitar and rushes past in less than thirty-seven minutes of songwriting goodness. And there’s a hint; an average of two minutes per song ensures The Darkening/The Brightening never out stays it’s welcome, and regularly left this listener wishing the songs had been longer.
Opener ‘Welcome’s half-whispered vocal over picked guitar sets a vague scene, allowing you to appropriate your own story if Stevenson’s isn’t to your taste. The instantly catchy melody and strong imagery – ‘The hieroglyphics of love / Written in the brightening dark’ – announces a languid, rolling style that by song four you’ll be so comfortable with you’ll wonder where he’s been all these years.
‘The Rope Maker’s Daughter’ has a similar feel to ‘Welcome’ until forty seconds in when the song gently unfolds on the ‘…wings of a bird’. ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ is brilliant. Strummed rather than picked, with an unforgettable ear-worm in the form of a descending accordion line, it ups the ante considerably. Exquisite piano and layered backing vocals add to a feeling of sumptuousness; if you know Stephen Fretwell, think his ‘Magpie’ album couched in layer after layer of warm, honeyed melodies and the same, sweet vulnerability.
It’s not all fragile songwriter fare, however. Though ‘All I’ve Got Left Is The Moon’ reverts to finger-picking – ‘Can you show me that God is like / ‘Cos I’ve nearly forgotten?’ – ‘Hell Hound Holly’ injects a note of humour, not least in the title, which sounds like something Jim Steinman would carve a Broadway musical from, but in the choral backing vocals balanced with the wonderful ‘Drink up’ line at the end of the chorus.
‘Until The Devil Gets Paid’ is the first of four songs that span the turning point in Stevenson’s narrative. Half-hope, half hopelessness, this metaphor for a personal journey leaves you wondering how much of the wounded soldier in the lyric is Stevenson. It’s followed by ‘That Dawn’, which together with ‘A Falling Leaf’ needs no metaphors; both benefit from plain language beautifully sung. Lastly, ‘Goodbye For Good’ is a letting go in all senses of the phrase, the music beginning to rise even as hope peeks over the parapet.
At this point, you could be forgiven for being exhausted, but so light and delicate a touch has been applied to these songs that halfway through you’re genuinely happy at the prospect of nine more. ‘The First Day Of Spring’ is as optimistic as songs can get, particularly following the lows of the previous few, and the feeling of redemption and release is continued through ‘Thus Wept The Angel’ and ‘Comatose Joe’ (despite the names), the latter a curious title from a clearly curious mind. ‘Searching The Heavens’ – ‘Contrary to popular belief / Everything is going to be alright’ – is equally spry and observant, but the second-half standout, matching the brilliance of ‘Heart Shaped Stone’, is ‘One More For The Landlocked Sailor’. Finger-picking of the highest quality, with a great call and response chorus underpinned with simple synth notes, this song could be six times the length and never tire.
If I had to classify the album, I’d err on the side of songwriter rather than folk music, though penultimate track ‘The Girl With The Hawthorne Tree’ has a lyric that feels as if it’s been handed down rather than recently conjured. Closer ‘Vigil’ is, in some ways, a response to the first song, ‘Welcome’; the repeated line ‘Are you alright?’ strikes a note of concern for the listener introduced to ‘whoever you are’ at the album’s beginning.
Like panning for gold, Stevenson and his Waterboy producer Mike Scott have pored over the contents of Freddie’s heart, washed away any excess and conjured small but perfectly formed gems from the stuff of life.
And how they sparkle.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via Cadiz
Order via Amazon