album review for the skinny
Broken Records have had 18 months of building support from fans, bloggers and critics in the run-up to Until The Earth's release this month. A superb self-titled debut EP and regular enchanting live shows all over Britain had them marked as an obvious prospect. In fact, success seemed an inevitability, because unsigned bands as fully formed as Broken Records never stay unsigned for long. That no record deal was forthcoming from the rumoured bidding war until a celebrated signing with 4AD in January of this year was a only a minor concern.
Early comparisons to Arcade Fire might've been directed at Broken Records' passion, melodrama, and self-seriousness; or perhaps it's just because both bands have seven members. A better comparison for their music emerges now - The Waterboys, led by Edinburgh's own Mike Scott. The Waterboys' most acclaimed album, This Is The Sea, was a self-consciously big record, an untethered attempt at large-scale profundity which was difficult to listen to without cringing at its bombast. But Scott's indulgences were overlooked by many because, underlying it all, the songs were strong enough in other ways.
Broken Records' singer and chief songwriter Jamie Sutherland is how Mike Scott would be were he equally in thrall to Beirut's Gulag Orkestra as to Astral Weeks. There are clear Eastern European and Celtic influences on Until The Earth, which is part of the reason Broken Records were so enjoyable in the first place. The rip-roaring A Good Reason fuses boisterous Russian squat-kicking folk with muscular indie-rock, and If Eilert Loevberg Wrote A Song... makes use of an accordian-led polka to similar effect. Broken Records' pianist regularly finds a gorgeous chord sequence, such as in the intro to A Promise, and again at the start of Ghosts. Closing track Slow Parade majestically grows from shivering strings and guitar arpeggios into a dramatic and moving finale, one that should surely one day soundtrack a Hollywood rom-com's happy ending. In fact, Until The Earth's set is consistently strong, and the way several songs are blended directly into the next one provides a sense of continuity that adds to the album's overall cohesiveness. Unfortunately, like This Is The Sea, Until The Earth also presents a challenge to listeners: to appreciate the songs despite the pretentiousness of their presentation. If it wasn't for Sutherland's oversung vocals, the formulaic structures and grandiose arrangements of several songs, and song titles which heap on the pomposity by referencing 19th century Norwegian theatre, Until The Earth would be a classic.
Sutherland has always had a tendency to oversing, but it was masked somewhat by muffling effects on the EP. Here, the vocals are cloyingly forceful and false throughout. It's like when Bruce Springsteen summons up all the strength from his chest before he erupts into voice; his emphasis threatens to suffocate the actual meaning of the lyrics. And when, out of nowhere, Springsteen huffs and puffs a line like "let's blow this fucking place apart", as he does on his most recent album, he descends into self-parody. Until The Earth's opening track, Nearly Home, is reminiscent of a similar vocal excess when Sutherland sings "And rip it up, rip it all apart, this place that our parents built, we'll let it all burn down to the ground" before slurring that final word because he's seemingly too angry to pronounce the vowel. Fourth track A Promise features more bombastic bluster, as Sutherland strains so hard to emote each line: "hhhand if our hearts all disappear, hhhand if our bones they crumble to the soil, hhhand all our love will rise again, hhhand all fall to the sea." Almost every song features instances of such exertion that the album becomes as tiring to listen to as it sounds to perform.
A Promise also demonstrates the other major problem with Until The Earth. Listen to that delicate, tender piano intro: it lasts just a few seconds on its own, and it's gorgeous. Then Sutherland's vocals come in: a little oversung, but the melody is just right, and the story he recites about the burial of a loved one is genuinely touching, for a moment. Then piano chords louden, and my heart doesn't swell, it sinks. A Promise is the fourth track, but it's the third to do this exact same thing. What was originally subtle must now be made epic, the profundity amplified so you're left in no doubt that you must care, harder. Later, the embellishments fall away and there's another lovely strings interlude. But then the drums start to pound and the strings hold and tremble to build tension before, yes, the bombastic climax. By now it's a formula, and it's still to be repeated four more times before the album's end. It's like Broken Records don't trust us to comprehend their subtle majesty, so they decide to hammer it home in case we've missed it. Combined with Sutherland's emphatic angst, it portrays a sense of self-importance that's difficult to bear.
And that is so very frustrating because Until The Earth is an album that could've been "important", as far as indie rock ever can be, had it been recorded with a touch of modesty in mind. The producer could've minimised the gradiosity of the arrangements, not highlighted them. Someone could've had a discreet word in Jamie Sutherland's ear about his vocals. The band could've directed more songs towards un-epic endings. Sutherland could've thought about why the sixth track was like a song as written by Eilert Loevberg, and renamed it so we might understand. Until The Earth isn't a disaster. For many, Broken Records' grandiosity will amplify the obvious strengths in the songwriting. The Waterboys sold millions, won awards and rave reviews, and toured the world, and Broken Records still have a lot of achievements within their grasp. But others will be blinded by their bluster, dissuaded from listening by the forced sincerity and manufactured meaningfulness. Until The Earth Begins To Part is as ambitious and indulgent as its title suggests; and that's a pity.