There is a moment just over a minute into Separated By A Smile, the closing track from Alexander Wolfe’s second album, when a lone trumpet is introduced – subtly at first, gradually coming to the fore as the song progresses – and lifts it to a new level. Frustratingly, it’s the kind of quality we could reasonably have expected all along.
I love so much about this album. I love darkness in music, and it doesn’t come much darker than a collection of songs inspired by a period of insomnia punctuated by violent, disturbing dreams about insanity, mass murder and a flock of horses driven to the brink of death by religious fever.
I love Wolfe’s stated influences at the time of the recording – Ryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neutral Milk Hotel, and more besides.
I love the style of the bulk of the album – sparse, just hushed vocals and slow guitar, every string crystal clear. Yet this, perhaps, is a weakness as well as a strength. To carry off such a raw, naked style of songwriting requires arguably a more arresting voice than Wolfe’s – stronger, or more fragile, or more haunting, or… just something more.
The prime example is In Broad Daylight. “Last night in broad daylight, I was covered in blood/Mostly from the insides of the people I love” is an undeniably dramatic opening to a song which recounts a dream in which, says Wolfe: “I killed everyone I loved, family, friends, everyone. When I woke up I was convinced it was real. To find her in the bed next to me, alive, was the happiest I ever remember being” – yet improbably, I was never quite gripped by the song.
The aforementioned stand-out Separated By A Smile is preceded by a “dark, thick version” of Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down – which bizarrely comes out sounding a bit like Starsailor’s Coming Down, with a dash of Embrace, and somehow works – in a strong finish to an album which is almost truly outstanding, but comes up frustratingly just short.
Words: Tom White