‘First Days of Spring’ brings art out of grief

caitlinhardee

Noah and the Whale’s new album, The First Days of Spring, has an attractive cover photograph.

If it didn’t, I would strongly advise plastering a giant “Do not try this at home” sticker across the front of it. The concept behind this album is just dangerous. Dude is in a band with a hot chick. Chick breaks up with him and leaves the band. Dude writes eleven songs about his post-breakup feelings. This could go wrong in so many ways.

But the unexpected rightness of the album hits the listener like a bus full of tranquilizers. From the very beginning of the opening title track, we are seized and quieted by the huge, diverse instrumentation. The blend of drums, orchestral layers and guitars at times overpowers frontman Charlie Fink’s vocals. His sparse, reductionist voice: reminiscent of Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody: is the kind of voice that would be better paired with a single acoustic guitar.

The lyrics emerge more strongly further into the album, as the background instrumentation quiets. Fink sings of lost love, alienation and hope. He is unsparing with both us and himself, dragging us against the raw edges of his loss.

Deep piano work and background strings give the album a strong emotional grounding of melancholy, but it’s impossible to be bored: no two tracks are alike. “My Broken Heart” begins with flavors of blues and jazz, then twists into contorted rock riffs. The first brief instrumental piece blends from classical strings into racing chorals on “Love of an Orchestra.” The second instrumental transitions from medieval bells into something reminiscent of the Into the Wild soundtrack: sparse, moving, powerful guitars and soft water sounds.

The album hovers on the short side, clocking in around 43 minutes: long enough to keep Fink’s emotional journey interesting, without miring us in his pain. The songs acknowledge sadness but build to a hopeful place with later tracks like “Blue Skies,” reminiscent of Coldplay’s “Glass of Water.”

With such diverse sounds and influences ranging from indie punk to folk, it’s hard to classify Noah and the Whale’s sophomore album. What remains important is that they achieve a seamless melding of these potentially clashing styles into an aesthetically unified whole. Such genre-defying acrobatics are coming to be expected from pop alternative label Cherrytree, which consistently abandons rigidly defined musical paradigms to sign edgy world-class acts from Tokio Hotel to Lady Gaga.

It remains to be seen whether Noah and the Whale will achieve similar success. The departure of Fink’s brother from the band will undoubtedly change the dynamic as they tour throughout North America and Europe. The recent theft of their prized instruments and musical equipment also posed an emotional blow to the band. If there’s a question of where to send your musical budget this month, direct it away from the millionaire rockstars and towards this brave, idealistic band. A trailer full of guitars doesn’t come cheap. Like their eponym, Noah and the Whale are on a journey through the unknown.