Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Charlie Simpson - Young Pilgrim Album Review (2011)

The world has changed a lot since the days of Busted. Remember them? They were the band that brought emo to the UK and paved the way for such wonderful acts as McFly. In the band’s thankfully short career, they were incredibly successful but in 2003, frontman Charlie Simpson grew weary of the trite bouncy commercial pop and formed the band Fightstar, a completely different foray into post-hardcore heavy rock. Four albums later and Fightstar continue to embrace the deeper, more complex sound of a ‘proper’ band while retaining much of the melody-washed song writing that made Busted so engaging. After a brief hiatus Simpson is back with a solo album, and yet another style. He is like the one-man Noah And The Whale. Young Pilgrim, made with Coldplay and Doves producer Danton Supple, is a luscious, if obvious, blend of indie-pop and acoustic rock.

On opener Down Down Down, Simpson plays the ‘jaded former-frontman’ very well and his voice belies his young years. It is hard to tell if the line “We’ve sent people into space without really knowing if they’re ever gonna come back down” is naïve teenage musing or a clever double-meaning. Sadly the wheels come off as a change of pace and transformation into a limp protest song removes all credibility. Not a great start. Parachutes, in spite of being an obvious Coldplay homage (and not just in name), is a better approach. The first signs of Simpson’s talent as a lyricist brings us “So sorry for the pain, sorry for the aches, sorry for the moods I’m swinging” and a great chorus. The jolly country rock and jilted shifting arrangement of All At Once is a much more natural vocal performance complete with falsetto chorus.

Young Pilgrim finds its feet with the wonderful Thorns with more solid vocals, simple drums and a guitar melody. Another good line is “Don’t take this broken heart of mine, it’s the only beat that I have left pulsating through this empty chest”. A great highlight. Cemetery brings together the curious mix of xylophone, double-bass and another cracking chorus while Hold On completes the trilogy, a dreamy harmony-filled pop ballad, in what shapes up to be a strong centrepiece. The same approach continues on I Need A Friend Tonight but is too light and airy, building to a rousing finale that never happens.

In the second half Suburbs drifts by and drifts away to make way for Sundown, a Tom Baxter-esque masterpiece filled with a great arrangement and passionate energy. In the album’s final trilogy, Farmer & His Gun is more great writing: a metaphor for making it on your own and avoiding predators, delivered as gentle country-rock. The sentiment is almost lost in some kooky instrumentation but “It’s best to lose yourself before you ever lose your pride” is the best line on the album. There are great vocals, guitars and well-used harmonica. In an inconsistent turn, If I Lose It crawls through the first two minutes before finally failing to be a huge stadium anthem thanks to flat production. But Riverbanks is a strong (if repetitive) finish with real depth and striking vocals, into a soaring final instrumental.

Even with the pitfalls it is hard to dislike Young Pilgrim. The album has an instant charm and more often than not it draws you in, but the problem is it constantly dazzles you in its headlights. As a song writer Simpson has much to learn and shows great strength but Supple resorts to softening the vocals when a raw production would have more of an impact and there are too many tricks: wordless backing vocals, strings and pounding drums might work for other bands but here there are too many empty spaces. The glue is just as important as the material and things often crack and fall apart. So even though it is far from a triumph this is the most ambitious and unique Charlie Simpson has ever sounded. And that alone should be applauded.

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