“I do see the film and the album as being together, as a unified thing,” says Noah and the Whale’s chief songwriter and singer Charlie Fink about the band’s new record and accompanying film, The First Days of Spring. “But the album very much came first – it has its own internal narrative.”
As with their debut, last year’s Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, the Londoners’ second release follows a structure. There are songs here – Blue Skies, Our Window, I Have Nothing, Slow Glass – that cry out for special attention, for love. But the journey the album takes you on, from the ominous drum tattoo and string swell on the opening title track right through to the strummed acoustic guitar, pedal-steel keening and massed voices that bring My Door is Always Open to its devastating close, is an experience quite unlike that offered by most music being made today.
Charlie began thinking of making an album that was also a film (and, as he sees it, vice versa) last year. The film, shot on a miniscule budget in a tight time-frame – a process one of the producers describes “as making a near feature-length film, for the budget of a short, in eight days” – and directed by Charlie himself, can be seen as a companion piece to the album, as a visual version of it, or as a piece of work in its own right. That decision is very much up to us, as the listener and viewer, says Charlie.
Formed in 2006, Noah and the Whale quickly gained a foothold on a London music scene variously described as anti-folk, nu-folk and folk-pop (a confusing multitude of pigeonholes) alongside like-minded souls such as Laura Marling and Emmy the Great. Both were part-time members of the band at various points, while Charlie Fink also produced Marling’s Mercury-nominated debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim. It was apparent immediately that something unorthodox and disturbing was going on in Noah and the Whale’s songs: that, beneath the surface appeal (bells, whistles, handclaps, ukuleles and singalong choruses), they were working with much darker materials. This tension, between instantly undislodgeable melodies and instrumental textures that encouraged sunny disposition, and lyrics that looked unblinkingly at the ambiguities contained in love, in words, in life and in death, made the band’s debut album a critical and commercial success, charting in the Top 5 and being certified Gold within just four months. The band toured extensively, in the UK, in Europe and in the US, their superb live shows drawing much acclaim as the album, and earning the band a rabidly loyal fanbase in the process.
The end of a relationship last year prompted Charlie to revisit the themes of love, loss and mortality on Noah and the Whale’s first album and explore both his own feelings and the universal themes of decay and rebirth. At the album’s core is the extraordinary Love of an Orchestra, a song the band have performed many times before, but which emerges here in a strikingly reupholstered version. With the Exmoor Singers of London joining the band, and Charlie singing, “I know I’ll never be lonely / I’ve got songs in my blood”, the song represents the moment where the fog lifts, perspective returns, and the first inklings of optimism begin to suffuse the narrative. “I wanted it to be unnerving,” Charlie laughs. “I feel like it takes you out of the record; it’s a moment of madness. The first half of the album becomes increasingly pessimistic, and the second increasingly optimistic; and then the ending is ambiguous. I wanted Love of an Orchestra to be a bang. You know: this is where it changes.”
It certainly does that. In the film, we watch a succession of actors playing a male character – or possibly, a number of different characters – who struggles with intimacy, isolation, death and renewal. Visual links – a red Citroen; a lake; a forest – echo the musical cross-quotation that occurs on the album. Thus the album’s second track Our Window, which documents with searing candour and authenticity the bereavement that envelops the narrator in, first, the decline and then the aftermath of his relationship, anticipates the later Blue Skies, on which Charlie sings, “It’s time to leave those feelings behind.”
Before Love of an Orchestra, that resolve is absent. The title track marks the passing of winter with a brittle and never convincing confidence in the arrival of spring. “There is hope,” Charlie sings, “in every new seed / In every flower that grows upon the earth.” Musically, though, the tone is bereft, undermining all sense of hope. Glacial strings hover between the vocal phrases. A guitar plays a motif that belongs more in the decay of autumn than the blossoming of spring. One of the album’s great achievements is that it never flinches from the truth or opts for comfort, either lyrically or in its sonic architecture. On I Have Nothing, a mournful, strummed blues, the ghostly backing vocals lend a line such as “The flower that you’re keeping, without love, will wilt and die” astonishing power. When, towards the end of My Broken Heart, the song explodes in a squall of electric guitar, you sense not the dawning of clarity but the chaos of mental torment. The refrain, “You can’t break my broken heart”, seems a proud but empty boast, not defiant but utterly defeated. At this point, the album is mired in self-doubt and mourning. Love of an Orchestra is therefore, suggests Charlie, not just a natural midway point, but a vital moment, a release.
The First Days of Spring is identifiably the work of the band that made Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down. But it also a departure, a development of their debut album’s ambitions and textures. Nowhere more so than in Charlie’s use of the electric guitar, which here becomes a crucial component of the soundscape, cutting in to moments of almost pastoral quietude with scalpel-like incisions, and suggesting a battle between the search for peace and optimism and the surging anger born of loss. Jimi Hendrix famously played the guitar with his teeth. Charlie’s approach was at one remove but unorthodox nonetheless. “I held an electric toothbrush against the pick-ups,” he says. “It does sound as though I’m attacking the instrument – chaos, basically. I live with my brother Doug [Noah and the Whale’s drummer], and there was a period where he got really mad at me, because for about two weeks I was there just making white noise on this guitar, over and over again.”
You won’t find any white noise on The First Days of Spring. But the darker sonic depths hinted at on Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down are investigated on the new album with a thoroughness and fearlessness that will first surprise, and then ensnare, people whose knowledge of the band is based chiefly on their Top 10 hit, Five Years Time. It is worth remembering how that single, for all its upbeat, singalong breeziness, was, deep down, a song about anticipating the transitory nature of love. On My Broken Heart, Charlie’s first verse may give way to a mournful violin theme from Tom Hobden; but the subsequent break explodes in a joyous, affirming blast of trumpet and trombone. As the listener, you are thrown this way and that – between hopelessness and hope – as violently as the narrator. And as a result, you are pulled in to his journey. Charlie’s directorial debut achieves a similarly enveloping power; you experience the characters’ romantic and personal misfortunes and breakthroughs as if they were your own.
Neither the album nor the film provides clear or easy answers. “One thing I do want to create is that ambiguity,” explains Charlie, “so that people will talk about it, think about it afterwards. I don’t want to explain anything about the story, so people will have a chance to work out what it means to them, for themselves.”
The film will be paired with the album in a limited edition version, and shown to the public in cinemas across the country in the coming months. Throwaway pop this isn’t: The First Days of Spring, as an album, as a film, asks us to approach in a spirit of openness, to invest in its message of despair giving way to hope, of an end being followed by a beginning. “The album is exactly what I wanted it to be,” says Charlie. “Recording an album is like being a painter – you’re sat in front of a landscape, and the painting is the most important thing, you need to capture the landscape while the light is right. And when the light goes, you’ve got the essence of it there, but you’re free to take the painting wherever you want.”
Noah and the Whale took that painting into the recording studio, and out on location. The result is an album and film of huge emotional power, complexity and impact; and songs that will stay with you, perplex you, haunt you, long after My Door is Always Open’s closing bars have faded into silence. People insist the album is dead. The First Days of Spring begs to differ. To paraphrase the old monarchists’ cry: the album is dead, long live the album. And, of course, the film.
Noah and the Whale are: Charlie Fink, Doug Fink, Tom Hobden and Urby Whale.
The First Days of Spring is released on Cherrytree Records in October.