Shallow Bed opens with Animal Skins, immediately drawing on Liddle’s past as a student anthropologist and highlighting his wonderful vocal qualities. Blending bouncing acoustic guitars with choral tones, Liddle tells the tale of growing up before hitting the big chorus – a song of two distinct movements. New Ceremony has a different feel; a slightly quirky introduction and talk of ‘dancing to the Shipping Forecast’ in a quiet first minute or so, before the song transforms with the first delivery of the line “I know it’s got to stop love but I don’t know how…”. The violin and drums kick and the second verse brings the love song into light: “We’re wise beyond our years but we’re good at bad ideas”, muses Liddle before the song really explodes with a belting chorus – showing brilliant vocal power and a proficient ear for a great arrangement in one slick move. It’s so good it’s given a second round before a delicate finish.
Shield Your Eyes opens with jangling looping guitars and cold violin before vocals quickly join with Liddle, now with a slight cracking to his choirboy tones. His spiritual side is here: “When Moses was a whisper in the reeds. I carved you in the floodplain” is stirring and the Phrygian Lion is a repeated theme, “…at the gate of our love” watching over the devoted. Uplifting and enlightening. This leads wonderfully into the metaphoric History Book. “Beneath an angry Bible flood, did you and I first learn to love” is a gorgeous line leading to a lilting chorus and another mesmerising and personal love song. At three and half minutes, the song takes an unexpected turn into jaunty and ‘twee’. This is the only song on Shallow Bed that is oddly misjudged but the combination of the band saves it.
The Chambers & The Valves again shows Liddle’s curious scientific nature. “The bodies in the firmament are spinning like a plate; I was lost in the fission before you came” is another great line. The verses race into the frantic relentless chorus before the song slows again for a brief respite, only to come back with more fervour and energy. Liddle continues to question faith against science: “In the land of mistakes I should lay my crosses down” and he ‘swallows his words, closing his mouth’. Then Demons is the much-needed breath-catching interlude, all beauty and strings with a deep hymnal quality. “We fight those demons, day in and day out…day in and day out…”. The music rises to a wall of cymbals and strings for the rousing finale that becomes the connection into Bible Belt, seamlessly fusing the two songs. This is the melancholy story of growing up under the shadow of alcoholism: “Your father had drunk all the fuel. You were a low moon, steady with wintry calm. Somewhere inside the fire of your youth went dark”. This heart-breaking yet hopeful songwriting is matched by Liddle’s amazing tearful voice, rough and pure at the same time. The once-only chorus is one of many album highlights.
No Rest completes the trio in spectacular style. A slow build-up from Liddle leads to some of the best guitar-work on the album followed by an early preview of the powerful key line: “I loved you in the best way possible”. Astonishing vocals, repeated over and over as the final act with unbelievable control to finish. Easily the album’s best moment. Shaker Hymns, it turns out, breaches a gap between the two best songs on Shallow Bed, another intermission which feels like going over old ground, in spite of a neat wordless outro, before the mighty Weights & Measures arrives. If No Rest provides the best single moment, this is the finest single song. Beautifully arranged as an old-fashioned waltz, Liddle and the band build to the line “I was prepared… to love you. And never expect anything of you…” followed by the heart-wrenching “Baby there ain't no sword in our lake. Just a funeral wake”. This is light against dark throughout and the arrangement echoes this with Liddle filled with emotional energy, holding a note perfectly before the chorus crashes in again, the startling gap in the music between ‘prepared’ and ‘to love you’ even more prominent and affecting.
Shallow Bed draws to a close with another huge song, the beguiling Lion’s Den, all melody and control at the start then becoming more urgent. The vocals are (again) magnificent as they help the metamorphosis from soft to hard as choir turns to stadium chant and the harshness of the guitars builds to a crescendo. The drumming from Jon Warren is especially superb as order quickly becomes chaos and Liddle continues to yell like a madman, beneath squealing guitars, pounding bass and sharp violin.
So to conclude, the album closes with the intense Family. After the previous ‘ending’, this feels like an added extra and a step too far. That said it is another great song, heavier and darker than the beginning of Shallow Bed but just as compelling and absorbing. Liddle shows power and control, yet again proving he is a remarkable vocalist.
Shallow Bed is a wonderful piece of work. Produced by Peter Katis who has cast his guiding hand over albums by The National, Frightened Rabbit and Interpol, it is the sound of British folk-rock, with a huge slice of Norway, washed in Americana. The song writing is perfectly balanced, to draw you in with familiar emotion one minute and push you away with obscure references the next. And the band consistently delivers music of breathtaking poise and craft, throwing away the rulebook and breaking every formula to create songs that make their own structure. If Radiohead formed yesterday, this is what they would sound like. Shallow Bed is the start of something great and Dry The River is about to realise this greatness.