[sic] Magazine

Last Days – The Safety of the North

A third album in almost as many years, few can accuse Graham Richardson of resting on his laurels, though it must be pointed out, and ‘The Safety of the North’ confirms it, the ambition and scope of his Last Days recordings increases in tandem with his consistency. “Safety…” finds Richardson broadening his horizons once more both musically and thematically. The former sees the addition of beautiful folk and dreamy post-rock touches to his already considerable palette, while the story behind this record is far less ambigious concerning that of its central character ‘Alice’ who, along with her family, move from the disappointment of the city to a rural, potentially more fulfilling life. A brave concept indeed, given the fact that Richardson creates predominantly wordless music. That he conveys the required emotions, for the most part, using subtle field recordings, song titles, artwork and the strength of his songwriting makes it all the more remarkable. It also leaves each of the 15 ‘scenes’ on the record open to interpretation, its possible to participate and withdraw differing emotional nuances with each listen.

‘The City Failed’, with its tolling bell-like strokes and shimmering harmonics sets a tentative introductory tone, perfectly conveying the wonderment and hope when moving to pastures new. These sentiments are further augmented by the Vashti Bunyan folk stylings of ‘May Your Days Be Gold’, which features Familiar Trees’ Fabiola Sanchez on guest vocals urging us to think ‘of what lies ahead / making real all the tales you’ve read’. This line encapsulates the hope and wonderment one experiences in fresh surroundings. From there the beautiful ‘Fracture’ follows, its title alluding that all may not be well in Alice’s life, but the heart-breaking harmonic Eluvium-like shifts suggesting otherwise. “Run Home” wanders in a little later, a bona fide Last Days classic, unspooling from its early sedate state into a passage strongly reminiscent of Mogwai’s more introspective moments. It’s equally as heart-warming too and, hard to believe, the work of one man.

The next run of tracks, including the grainy, tick-tocking “Life Support” and the murky, contemplative “Your Silence Is The Loudest Sound” hint towards a family bereavement or traumatic experience in Alice’s life, which appears to be confirmed later in “The Fields Remember My Father”, with its crystal clear field sounds conjuring subtle imagery along with a brooding piano/glockenspiel duet. This ratchets the tension somewhat, allowing the listener’s empathy towards Alice to reach boiling point. A clever rouse too, for Richardson now has your undivided attention, hooked and reeled. It’s at this point he hits us with the elegiac whammy of “Nothing Stays The Same, Nothing Ever Ends”, which develops from an enveloping melancholia, lifting much of the apprehension and malaise of the previous few numbers with a release of mountain-sized melodic energy that can only be described as cathartic.

‘You Are Stars’ closely follows, with its apt nocturnal atmosphere and twinkling tones, giving a sense that Alice is once again ready to think towards the future. As ‘Blue and White Flowers’ rolls through you can almost taste the hope advancing again. Its towering strength returning with each passing second, until we reach the finale fanfare march of ‘Onwards’. There are no track titles or imagery needed here; Alice is walking with deliberation, hoping towards the future. As this quite marvelous journey reaches its pinnacle it struck me how much I had invested in this record, from its hopeful beginnings, to the apprehension I felt when things didn’t seem right, through to the overall empathy or hope I felt towards Alice. This is clearly down to the strength of Richardson’s writing, an ability that has the listener wrapped in the intricacies of his ‘script’ much like that of a film.

It’s true to say that this is his most accessible record, with many of the abstracted edges of previous efforts either smoothed or streamlined, but it’s by far his most challenging and far-reaching concept. Like previous Last Days outings, hope is the prevailing emotion. Either testament to its strength or the fact it is arguably the only constant emotion in life. On ‘The Safety of the North’ it radiates stronger than ever. “We’re all in the gutter” Oscar Wilde once famously said “But some of us are looking at the stars”. It’s clear in which bracket Graham Richardson belongs.