Richard Youngs is a unique, uniquely prolific and uniquely uncategorisable musician whose recorded output stretches back more than 20 years. Stylistically wide-ranging and experimental, he is a keen collaboratior, and is proficient in an array of instruments both conventional (guitar, accordian) and less so (theramin, oven tray). This album – originally released last year on collaborator Andrew Paine’s Sonic Oyster Records, now rereleased by Jagjaguwar – has been touted as his take on a “pop” album: a fascinating prospect indeed.
And, indeed, while “pop” might be stretching it a little (although let’s face it, the definition of Pop Music these days has itself been stretched so far this way and that that really – is anybody entirely sure of what it means any more?) there is certainly a lot to be found here that is accessible and easy to enjoy. Opener ‘The Valley In Flight’ is subtly propulsive dance music, of the type to sway and smile along with; and ‘Love In The Great Outdoors’ continues the theme, its funky bass line and sense of rhythm a little reminiscent of some of the calmer moments from Caribou’s Swim.
There’s an overriding feel of gentleness to the album: from ‘Like A Sailor’ with its simulation of a seagull’s cries to the gentle, warm guitar tones of ‘Summer Void’. The slightly hippy aesthetic of ‘Still Life In A Room’ and ‘Radio Innocents’ is reinforced by Youngs’ vocal: a curious beast part-folk singer purity and earnestness (‘The Valley In Flight’), part prog rock god (‘A Storm Of Light Ignites My Heart’). On ‘Still Life In A Room’ the layered vocals even sound like he’s singing a madrigal. Another technique he uses is to sing slightly out of time with the song’s beat, giving a curious time-delay which creates a slightly shaky, woozy, uncertain atmosphere in ‘Like a Sailor’, ‘Radio Innocents’ and ‘Summer Void’.
The musical arrangements are varied and quietly innovative. From ‘Like a Sailor”s squiggly electronica to the yearning strings on ‘Collapsing Stars’, the perkiness of ‘Love in the Great Outdoors’ to the warm acoustic jangle on ‘Summer Void’, then back to busy, scrawling scribbles of synth on closing track ‘Sun Points at the World’ – there are always interesting noises which ornament the tracks, but never threaten to overwhelm them. Lyrics often take the form of a key line which is stated and then repeated, like an incantation or lullaby.
If this all gets a little, at times, too calm and soft, then the very real drama and tension of ‘A Storm of Light Ignites My Heart’ provides an antidote, building to a loud, hard crescendo of guitar improvisation and riffing. The best tracks, though, are the beautiful, underplayed likes of ‘Collapsing Stars’, all soft yearning; and ‘Summer Void’ with its perfect musical evocation of a heat-drenched shimmering emptiness.
Pop music? Well, perhaps. If we can construct a definition that takes account of qualities like accessibility and likeability and innovation and atmosphere, then this would certainly qualify. Regardless of genres and labels, though, we can certainly still classify this album as a tranquil, subtle, understated success.