Album Review: Richard Swift – Atlantic Ocean
Often compared to Harry Nilsson, Richard Swift shares the 60s maverick’s category-avoiding, highly melodic and eccentic brand of pop rock. Swift, who prefers the analogue four track production techniques of the Nilsson era, recorded ‘The Atlantic Ocean’ – his latest for Secretly Canadian – in Wilco’s loft (Wilco’s Pat Sansone features on bass, among a semi-sparkling supporting cast that includes Sean Lennon and Ryan Adams). As a singer-songwriter, lo-fi champion and sometime electronic experimentalist, ‘The Atlantic Ocean’ melds some of Swift’s eclectic interests into a boyuant set; vintage synths and traditional instrumentation around songs with insistent hooks. At first ‘The Atlantic Ocean’ comes across as a bit lean and clean, with songs that generally wrap up at around the three minute mark and Swift’s analogue orthodoxy belied by polished results that give clarity to each player. However, the intricate interplay of melody and accomplished instrumentation makes it an album that evolves over repeated listens. Swift’s breezy, sometimes rollicking piano-led pop also recalls Paul McCartney, but his use of a squeching retro synth throughout – underlining the piano, bouncing along with the bass – adds a certain singular charm that is less obviously influenced. Swift’s brilliance is combining completely disparate instruments and textures in a way that is boldly imaginative yet seems completely natural and effortlessly poppy. Despite the proliferation of ideas, ‘The Atlantic Ocean’ never sounds overloaded.
The opener and title track marries hammered out piano chords, Tetris synths and semi-treated West Coast harmonies in a propulsive, infectious slice of art-pop. The closer ‘Lady Luck’ is dreamy Motown sung in a gorgeous falsetto that displays an impressive vocal range evident but not demonstrated as starkly on other parts of the album. The arch lyrics (“I wanna drink until I’m drunk and see what kind of shit we get in”) and rambunctious synths of ‘The Original Thought’ are revisited on the equally compelling ‘A song For Milton Feher’, with its touching mantra “I will listen to your every word”. The Beatles-esque mini-epics ‘Ballad of Old What’s His Name’ and ‘Bat Coma Motown’ expand and contract mellifluously with Sgt Pepper brass parps and lilting harmonies. The synths take a B-movie wobble on the haunted house atmospherics of ‘Already Gone’, but the track closes with the kind of delicately plucked banjo and harmonies that bear comparison to Department of Eagles. The merry-go-round of ‘Hallelujah Goodnight’ sounds like Randy Newman simultaneously playing a moog and a grand piano, while the bittersweet piano pop of ‘This is the end of an Age’ is more conventional sonically but no less effective. By contrast, ‘The First Time’ shifts erratically between a tinny drum machine-banjo-and-Far Eastern string combo (as you do) and a glam rocking hand-clappy chorus, before drifting off in a shower of twinkling wind chimes. Amazingly it works. Sometimes a little arch to emotionally connect, ‘The Atlantic Ocean’ is not quite a great album, but is one that reveals new depths with every listen.