There’s a generally accepted tenet that a jack of all trades is master of none. Alex Shields, the brains behind A Grave With No Name, is evidently hell-bent on bucking the rules if his genre-hopping third foray into full length records, Whirlpool, is anything to go by.
Relocating from his bedroom set-up to Holy Mountain studios and collaborating with members of Echo Lake, Comanechi and Ides has breathed a new kind of energy and focus into Shields’ formerly solo project.
Despite opening track ‘Higher’ providing a nod to what’s been before, things take a much more definitive turn with the single ‘Aurora’. Bass-driven and gently framed by guitars and lovelorn synths straight out of a John Hughes movie, it’s pretty much flawless, with fuzzy edges and the pitch perfect vocals of Alanna McArdle completing this beautiful and curiously summery jigsaw. The track’s without a hint of frivolity and over before you want it to be.
The same can be said of ‘Dig Me Out’; its spikes of guitars and surprising, chunky melodies add up to hugely satisfying and deftly constructed pop. For a lo-fi artist who delights in experimentation, it could be hard to acknowledge that pop music is your true raison d’être, but that’s something Shields might have to come to terms with.
‘Float’ invokes a love and warmth which catches you off guard, while ‘Six Months’ and ’73′ are lovelorn and fragile. ‘Bored Again’ and ‘Steps’ have whispers of The Flaming Lips baked into their swelling basslines and an underscore of discontent cloaked by a playful tone while ‘Origami’ is a riff heavy sugar hit and one of the certified highlights.
Whirlpool is a record crafted from exactly the same ilk of tortured soul that make the Mark Everetts and Luke Steels of this world so idiosyncratic, with the ability to wire directly to one’s own heartache without being contrived. Shields’ exorcism of his own personal demons means that Whirlpool is akin to a glimpse into his own diary, a precise navigation through light and shade, littered with ghosts and faded memories. The themes of love and loss are, of course, well-trodden but somehow these songs harbour a hopefulness that validates what might have been an indulgent exercise.
Shields has indicated that the record is part of a – chronologically confusing – trilogy but it’s important to judge Whirlpool on its own merits. Being self reliant and recording with only yourself as a critic may be the mark of a prolific songwriter but it also leaves more room for weak spots alongside with the strong. His two previous albums seemed to breeze along well, but Whirlpool is more solid and sure of itself, executed with a straighter vision and boasting fuller, more realised songs that take the ambience of Lower and Mountain Debris into audience friendly territory.
While he yo-yos through shoegaze, electronica, grunge-lite, dream pop, chugging, Weezer-brand rock and psychadelia without missing a beat, there’s a new sense of direction and clarity embedded in this album. The endless genre-hoarding means there are a million comparisons to be drawn, but mind-warping originality doesn’t have to be your strong suit to make a great record. The songs are bound with a simplicity but layered so perfectly they are works of art in themselves and it’s apparent that through the control Shields has wielded in his project until now, there’s a real work ethic behind it – and a feeling he’s paddling wildly beneath the surface though he wants to appear effortless. Although he has let others become part of his vision, Alex Shields is still keeping tight hold of the reins. When he’s steering in exactly the right direction, why would he let go?