The Boxer Rebellion - The Cold Still
By: Brett Spaceman
Nathan Nicholson is floating. Nothing new for the Rebellion front man who is regularly seen lifting off from the stage. (See their live show. I’d swear his tambourine has an anti-gravity app) Here though, on The Cold Still, the singer is borne upwards by the intricacies and subtleties of his bands third album. There is a notable shift away from this record’s predecessors. Exits and Union were gale forces. The Cold Still is a gentle exhalation and, like the leaf depicted on its cover, a thing of fragile beauty.
This is a work of maturity and confidence. Nathan sings of doubt, but I sense a singer and band growing ever more secure in their own skins. As vocalist, Nicholson has come on in leaps and bounds adding chorister falsetto to his wounded animal growl. He surprised us all when he unveiled those high notes on Union. Maybe he surprised himself? On The Cold Still, he sings with self-assurance and mastery in a mix that accentuates the song above everything else. These guys have learned that less can sometimes mean a lot more. In this they are aided and abetted by producer Ethan Johns who floods this album with light and space. Todd Howe’s trademark, vapour trail, guitars are now fettered. Like a mastered falcon he still soars but only occasionally and the impact is far greater for it.
Not to say The Cold Still is nothing more than a cosy featherbed of ambience and dynamics. The Boxer Rebellion still pack a punch. Light, reflective pieces provide this album with its soul, certainly, but these tracks are punctuated by short, sharp energy bursts. Yet even these moments of aggression sound different to the old model Boxers. The trio of ‘Step Out Of The Car’, ‘Runner’ and ‘Memo’ are taut, precise rallies – jabs rather than knockout blows. Of the three, only ‘Memo’ throws a backward glance to Union’s almost shoegazer guitar sound.
The Cold Still may be graceful and elegant but it is also a smiling assassin. Let the words come through and this record will floor you. Lyrically Nicholson is as vulnerable as he’s ever been and arguably even more socially aware. This latest long-player was never intended for ‘shuffle’ though. It’s a journey, and I get the distinct impression that our intended destination is ‘instant classic’, ‘Both Sides Are Even’. In this respect The Cold Still reminds me of The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead where ‘Both Sides…’ plays the ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ role. The other tracks lead us to that point and take us away again. As is often the case though, the journey is half the fun. ‘No Harm’ is an incredible opener and I can honestly say that the pairing of ‘Cause For Alarm’ and the aptly named ‘Caught By The Light’ rate amongst the bands finest output. Anyone’s finest output.
The Boxer Rebellion are airborne now. For the devotees who’d love to keep them exactly the way they were (and I suspect there are many) I have some sympathy but let me tell you friends, it ain’t gonna happen. This is one balloon we have to let go with. They may rise. They may disappear altogether but they are public property now. The Boxer Rebellion are no longer our band. This realisation, this turning of the page and accepting that it’s actually a whole new chapter is bittersweet for me. I feel the same mixture of pride and regret that a parent must feel when their son or daughter leaves home. It’s a feeling that matches the music perfectly.
“all that we have left
is never like before”
Emotional scars run deep within The Cold Still and its shiny, sure-footed exterior will never hope to conceal them. This is a record that strives for truth as well as beauty. You’ll find both in abundance.