Raised in London, but now a leading light on the Cambridge scene, Paul Goodwin released his debut album, Scars, back in 2008. Since then, a self-confessedly slow worker, he released just 2011’s mini album Trinkets and Offcuts and a live five track EP recorded in a primary school classroom. He’s also become a father.
The Northern Lights In The Neon Tube is his new album, on which he plays everything but drums and pedal steel. It doesn’t mark any significant changes, though he has dispensed with strings and he does a bit noisy and rocky on the organ backed blue Guilt-Edged Opportunity and the clattery Yes, But The Trains Run On Time. It’s still very much for those who appreciate the finely written simple acoustic guitar folk music a la early Al Stewart and Nick Drake, but that’s just fine.
The songs are, by and large, about getting older and the compromises and acceptances that come with that. Goodwin’s lyrics are both insightful and poignant, a fine example being Yes, But The Trains Run On Time, a song built around two conversations about learning to settle for less that includes the striking, if perhaps slightly misogynistic, line about how “every decent man ends up being a punch-bag with a wallet.”
The album opens with the five minute Cold Case, a ruminative song about the slow stagnation of a relationship “you know that you’re in trouble when your lover calls you ‘mate’”; moving on to the working week emotional shutdown of Wasted On The Youth “you can go the whole week and not wake up”.
A general air of middle-aged depression and resignation pervades the album, the New York set, failed artist number Heat Death talking about how it becomes increasingly harder to be impressed, unable to summon up the energy or enthusiasm to finish that song you started to write and asking “is there a sadder sight than someone clinging to their dreams too long?” Continuing the theme, Shelf Life tackles the realisation that the things you thought were important become less so the longer life goes on – “hide the photographs and tell yourself you burned them.” Then there’s the bitter irony encapsulated in the title of the drone and fractured piano backed but increasingly musically trenchant Never Better and the late night bar sadness drenched Black Coffee and Bromide with its images of broken marriages, lukewarm whiskey and the loneliness embodied in the final line “if you bite the bullet I’ll bite off your hand – I will follow anyone home.”
It’s not total gloom, however. The fingerpicked A Happy Ending may walk “a fine line between desperate and romantic” and sneer at the sentiments of songs like Wind Beneath My Wings and New Kid In Town, but it finds a kind of “comfort in the noose” of even a henpecked relationship, as he says, with awe, “what a thumb to be under”. Or there’s Muscle Memory, a slow strum number “about running into someone who you dreaded ever seeing again and realising that actually it’s fine.” These might not be glorious, life-affirming epiphanies, but in a world of encroaching darkness, these flickers of light from the neon tube are the aurora borealis of hope that keep you getting out of bed in the morning.
It’s a quietly unassuming album, but it creeps up on you and hits you in the solar plexus of your mid-life crisis, leaving you winded, but grateful to be still breathing.