Picture a singer-songwriter…
You’re probably picturing a man in his mid-20’s with floppy hair, an acoustic guitar and a slightly wet outlook on life. He’s possibly wearing some sort of stupid hat. He plays open-mic nights across the land to audiences of between one and ten people, he’s basically Ed Sheeran only a lot less successful. Why is it thought that we consider this a singer-songwriter?
PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Tom Waits – they’re all singers and songwriters, ditto Sharon Van Etten, David Tattersall and Father John Misty. So is it time we reclaimed the title? Time we said to all those whispering, made for advert, twee cover version singing muppets that you don’t get to monopolise the term singer-songwriter because Tom Waits is coming and he’s going to make you run off screaming with a head full of terror and inadequacy, David Tattersall is going to stick a guitar solo over your stupid guitar fumbling, and Father John Misty is going to be more flamboyant, fabulous and fun than you could ever imagine! The revolution is coming, and it’s going to be magnificent!
SWEET BABOO – THE BOOMBOX BALLADS
Sweet Baboo, or Stephen Black as the bank manager most likely calls him, has been sharing his gift for songwriting for the best part of a decade. This album, The Boombox Ballads, is his fifth full-length release. Discussing the inspiration behind the album, he has expressed his desire for this not to be seen as a record by a singer-songwriter but as a record by a singer. His desire to distance himself from the tag singer-songwriter may be a result of the negative connotations it has come to represent; those of melancholy, acoustic guitars and the dreaded phrase confessional.
The contradiction of the idea of this being a “singer” record, is that in stepping away from the traditional singer-songwriter blue print he has probably produced his most musically ambitious recording to date. Produced working alongside orchestral arranger Paul Jones, The Boombox Ballads showcases both Stephen’s progression as a songwriter and his ambition. It is a record laced with orchestral flourishes, his attempt, as he fully admits, to replicate the musical excess of the 1970’s recordings of Scott Walker or Harry Nilsson. It is not simply a case of Sweet Baboo adding strings to his usual stripped-back, often acoustic songs: it is a whole new way of viewing and approaching song writing.
With such a radical change to how a musician approaches a song, the obvious question becomes, is it any good? The answer, an emphatic yes, with the odd clarification to follow. You Are Gentle is a splendid piano-stomp in the vein of Randy Newman, which gives way to a darker chorus, with big triumphant horns and harmonies, mirroring BC Camplight, another songwriter who has successfully re-envisioned the classic old-style in the modern day. Got To Hang Onto You is the middle ground of the Super Furry Animals and The Beach Boys, an unquestionably lovely place to be. He lyrically explores his own happiness, a world where, “people say I’m lazy but they don’t know I’m in love, I don’t need to go out I’m too old for that stuff” and he pictures his favourite moments listening to “Northern Soul records while you’re lying next to me” and suggesting to his love, “let’s make our very own Wigan Casion, move furniture around and dance away into the night.” It’s delightfully cheesy, a smugly romantic slice of pure-pop gold.
The album is bookended by a pair of superb songs, closing track Over & Out has shades of Leonard Cohen in the 1980’s, always a questionable period, but he taps into the best bits, the cheap sounding buzzing keyboards and waltzing guitar lines, then allows washes of rich warm strings and saxophone to enter with shades of Matthew E. White, the whole thing acting as a sashaying farewell to the album.
The opening track, Sometimes, might just be the albums highlight, a nice juxtaposition of the Sweet Baboo of old and his new more ambitious sounds. It starts with finger picked guitars, before orchestral flourishes, low bassy brass and rich, warm strings enter proceedings, there’s shades of Rufus Wainwright, or Van Dyke Parks’ work with Brian Wilson. As it goes back to the acoustic guitar he notes, “I’ll never tire of singing these silly songs” but soon is coated in mournful strings, the sound of a solo violin playing over a bed of horns, as he shares his idea of a romantic evening, “baby lets stay up all night until we’re both crazy and sleep deprived, to see two of you is like a dream come true and if there’s anymore then, oh I am yours.”
The aforementioned clarifications, well one clarification really, this is not an album purely of orchestral balladeering. Walking In The Rain is a simplistic ditty, an ode to the joys of strolling through a downpour when, “the papers too give out free cagoules and warn us not to get caught, to get caught walking in the rain.” I Just Want To Be Good, written by Cate Le Bon, both about and for Sweet Baboo, is all meandering electric guitars and wistful, downbeat buzzing keyboards and features the memorable line, “I’m a lovely little man, I look good on paper.” Whilst Tonight You Are A Tiger, featuring a wonderfully over-long analogy about a palaeontologist, is closer to Awaylands era-Villagers than it is to Scott Walker, as he notes, “it’s hard enough to sing about being lonely, let alone in love.”
Weirdest of all is the recent single You Got Me Time Keeping, his attempt at writing a song in the mould or Scott Walker’s The Electrician, or as he put it, “I really did attempt to rip off the middle section.” It does unquestionably sound a bit like it, but it also sounds like almost every song you can think of, such is the array of ideas on show in one song. One minute rapid bouncing pop-guitars, then instrumental break downs featuring trilling trumpets, racing bass and low saxophone, then gorgeous Laurel Canyon-style string, and then back to the jaunty chorus, before one final spacey instrumental embellishment and it’s gone; remarkably it somehow hangs together. Lyrically it’s his ode to a woman, so wonderful that he’ll even turn up on time to things for her, but as it gradually unfurls he notes, “no, I am not, I am not in love” and how, “I think we’ll both end up in bits” as, “we talk and we talk but I think we’re headed for rocks.” It’s complex and delightfully ambitious, a rather neat summary of the album in general.
With frequent lyrical references to the song-writing process, it’s clear that Sweet Baboo is an artist who is obsessed with the creation and history of music. This attempt to reinvent himself seems to be an attempt to challenge himself, to see if he can live with the musical greats. Mission accomplished, this is a truly marvellous record, at once a classic pop record in the mould of so many others, but also a record that sounds unquestionably like Sweet Baboo.
The Boombox Ballads is out August 14th on Moshi Moshi Records. Sweet Baboo tours the UK, starting at the end of September.