Charlie Fink's written an expertly crafted ode to growing up
Time has served Noah And The Whale well. For frontman Charlie Fink, life since 2008 might not have been all sunshine, whistling and fun, fun, fun, like it was in the chintzy video for the London band’s debut single ‘5 Years Time’, but after the weep-fest of 2009’s ‘The First Days Of Spring’ and the sleek Americana of ‘Last Night On Earth’ in 2011, the band emerge with fourth album ‘Heart Of Nowhere’. It’s a record of rare precision; the kind that comes from figuring out exactly what you want. The kind that comes from being all grown up.
One of the weirdest things about growing up is that the person you used to be starts to seem like a stranger. The only way to look back at that person is to look for little clues from the past that might tell you how things came to be. When Fink, now 26, sings “I was looking for ‘Harvest’, but I only found ‘Silver & Gold’” on ‘Silver And Gold’ in the middle of the album, he finds one such clue. It’s the story of a 15-year-old Fink trying to get his hands on Neil Young’s classic album from the ’70s, but discovering instead the thoughtful acoustic album Young released at the age of 55. Fink decides you might not always get what you’re expecting, but sometimes it can work out for the best anyway. The song itself, ‘Silver And Gold’, feels like the older cousin to that other old Noah And The Whale singalong, ‘Give A Little Love’ from their first album. Back then the band were writing big, plodding anthems full of promises – “I will always be the sun and moon to you” – that grown-up Noah And The Whale knows it can’t keep. Fink has stopped asking for love, and started asking for the truth. “Love may not always be the cure,” he sings, “so just show a little faith in me“.
There’s not an ounce of the band’s early plod on this album, and none of the glassy studio production that made ‘Last Night On Earth’ sound like it was made to be played on a long drive down Highway 101. Instead, ‘Heart Of Nowhere’ is full of space created less by production and more by expert playing – from the clean, bone-like tapping of xylophone keys in the intro, to the strings behind Anna Calvi’s vocal in the triumphant title track. Calvi sings like she’s got four lungs, and Noah And The Whale are writing songs that stand up to the sound.
Most of ‘Heart Of Nowhere’ bears little trace of the quaint folk-pop that Noah And The Whale once pushed. ‘All Through The Night’ has the pulse of Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, racing headlong into the future with a heady carelessness that comes from surviving bad times and realising you’re going to make it. ‘Still After All These Years’ has a key change to make The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon jealous, while ‘There Will Come A Time’ pits staccato guitars against a loud, wandering bass that nods to Talking Heads.
The album finishes on a lilting lullaby, ‘Not Too Late’, in which strings reappear to wrap up proceedings while Fink moans about finding his own way to be a man. But you wonder if the album wouldn’t have been better finishing on the penultimate track. ‘Now Is Exactly The Time’ is this record’s mission statement – all ticking hi-hat and dancing basslines that sit like a coiled spring behind Fink preaching, half to you, half to himself. It’s a song about how he’s learned to forgive himself for the things that went wrong in his life, learned to love his friends despite their faults, to be patient with his parents. The past is still a foreign country to him, but there’s solace in knowing that even though there were some shit bits, things turned out alright. It might just be the best song Noah And The Whale have ever written.