Dan Michaelson – First Light
The state51 Conspiracy – 8 December 2017
Normally to be heard in the company of his band, The Coastguards, Dan Michaelson releases his second solo album in the wake of scoring the music for BBC’s The Detectorist series along with Johnny Flynn. First Light, however, is far removed from the bucolic folky airs featured in the series as Michaelson takes on that hypnagogic time of day when one is waking from slumber, a time of being half awake, half asleep and associated with both hallucinations and lucidity. The gathering of thoughts, in this case, the muse for the album. Speaking to Uncut magazine Michaelson stated he was finding himself waking up at, “The most horrific hours… I found a way to use it. At that time of day you feel there’s no one else in the world, but not in a bad way.”
Working with string arranger, Arnulf Linder, Michaelson has crafted nine pieces which float, Slumberland style, on a bed of violins, violas, cellos and double bass with only occasional guitar and piano peeking through. Wrapped in this duvet of sound, his supremely wearied baritone voice, high in the mix but deep in terms of delivery, slowly unravels his lyrics with flickering recollections and simple motifs often repeated, the befuddlement of the moment slowly giving way to consciousness. Some of the album recalls the break-up issues Michaelson sang about on his trio of albums with The Coastguards, there’s a stark emotional heft behind some of the words. “Don’t dwell on old kisses,” he sings while the weeping strings of Stone surround his elegiac delivery of the opening couplet, “Well I thought I was alone until you woke, just a flicker of the light, a candle blown. I see you, I’m no longer alone, we are more than words carved in stone.” Like a Leonard Cohen song sung on Mogadon, there’s a desolate beauty in the repetition of the lines.
Michaelson is oft compared to Bill Callahan but here, with the string arrangements, he is more like an almost comatose Scott Walker. There’s the same romanticism which fuelled a song such as Fire Escape To The Sky but it’s less florid, more torpid. The opening Careless, one of the wordier songs here, finds the strings slightly unsettling, like a ship bobbing on waves, as Michaelson awakes and, zombie-like, goes through early morning rituals while ruminating on love. Sand, with a glacial piano sliding beneath the strings, is like a faded seaside snapshot of happier times with the holding of hands signifying a union all too easily gone, grains of sand falling through fingers. On Someone Else’s Dream Michaelson yearns to share the awakening moment but on But I’ll Never Be Lost there’s an acceptance of sorts that memories are all that are left. There’s a crack of light in the dark on the title song as Michelson, finally awake, sings, “Let’s leave the night… see what it really means to break the sunlight on your face,” despite the ponderous pessimism still inherent in his voice. The closing song, Don’t Let It Pass, is the ray of hope, the strings skipping almost as Aurora casts her beams, the curtains opened letting a new day dawn.
Some time ago this reviewer referred to Michaelson’s music as epic miserabilism and it’s here in spades. First Light is a wallow in angst and misery given wings by the superb music and his tremendous vocals.
First Light is out now