Black Swan Lane – A Moment Of Happiness
What do we see?
A surrealist (or possibly symbolist) image of a female figure seated stiffly with her feet in a bucket. Most strikingly she holds a clock over her head. I’m no art critic folks but this picture speaks to me of inertia. Our faceless lady isn’t going any place, any time soon. The bathing of the feet might have suggested deity but this looks more commonplace like the old fashioned soothing of ailment. Also, rather than a mask, I think the clock actually represents the subjects head. All of which leads me toward the inevitable conclusion that this person is a prisoner of time, obsessed by its passing.
A moment of happiness?
And they say Americans don’t get irony.
What do we hear?
You probably already know that Black Swan Lane deal in melancholic, Brit-influenced dreampop. John Kolbeck and Jack Sobel have been the core axis of a somewhat amorphous line-up. Past incarnations have enlisted stellar guest contributions from the likes of Anna-Lynne Williams and Mark Burgess. Indeed The Chameleons have always loomed large as an obvious influence. Morrissey is another but BSL have risen above such cheap tagging mechanisms. Sure, if we look closely we’ll still find nods and winks, a chiming guitar effect here, a familiar melody there, (Chameleons / Invincible fans should check out ‘More’) but since their inception, BSL have increasingly established and followed their own singular vision. Sobel found his voice, a decent one at that – his husky, staccato delivery has improved with age, woodbines and whiskey. His writing has found its niche too. BSL songs have a recognisable DNA now. That’s where we start the new album.
‘DNA’ could be viewed as ‘Relax and Breath #2’ only this time things feel different. The previous albums opening mantra for hope has given way this time to a defiant refusal to change. ‘Body and Soul’ is likely to take most plaudits and the albums magnum opus is ‘Years’, but ‘DNA’ is the signature song for this collection. Elsewhere pleasant instrumental ‘Sandia’ will certainly win friends and ‘Pretty In Tears’ is something genuinely wonderful. Both are graduates from the school of ‘less is more’. However at other times the album overloads its arrangements. ‘Time’ is something of a missed opportunity for me. Its opening minute is a joy, all dreamy, spacious ambience with Sobels vocal approaching a Martin Rossiter quiver. Then it shifts gears into something far more ‘BSL by numbers’.
The second half of the album is punctuated by serious, heavyweight songs vying for top billing. There’s a palpable absence of light relief. No radio-friendly hit single here. Yet this release might have benefited from something catchy and accessible just to give the likes of ‘Lonely’ and ‘Years’ more breathing space.
What do we feel?
A Moment Of Happiness is a bruised, bleak collection of songs which ache like aging joints. Nothing here carries the whimsical joy of something like ‘Say Goodbye’. BSL appear grizzled and toughened now, hardened by experience. The Last Time In Your Light held a kind of reflective majesty. This new album is the product of that reflection, the realisation, and the conclusions drawn. It is brave, honest and resigned – the sound of hope extinguishing. Like a boxer who bravely fights on despite the growing awareness that he will never get that title shot. Real heroes have to lose.
There’s a lyric by Death Cab For Cutie, (on ‘Title and Registration’) that goes; “disappointment and regret collide, lying awake at night”. It’s nothing Earth shattering. Nobody jumps in front of a train. Yet that line slays me every time I hear it because it has real relevance. This title, “A moment of happiness” implies only one thing – that the ‘moment’ is an anomaly in an otherwise lifetime of sadness. That’s how it leaves its authors bow, and that’s how it strikes through my heart. With all of its implications, personal or professional this is a heavy listen for me. Don’t get me wrong, the music is lovely, but the meaning… rips me apart. This is real. This is authentic – a must have album to file alongside The Bends, Strange Times, Bloodflowers, The Cold Still or anything by Sun Kil Moon.
Sometimes life is all about moments.
Moments which take our breath away.