While many songwriters seem to run out of ideas, Paul Dempsey just gets more and more interesting as time goes by. The most recent Something for Kate release in 2012 (coming two decades into the band’s life) delivered some of the outfit’s best work yet. And Dempsey’s trajectory as a solo artist is just as strong, as evidenced by his second album Strange Loop, which successfully builds on the template of his 2009 solo debut, Everything is True.
While that first LP was a piece of folk-rock gold, Dempsey’s latest work is played out on a larger canvas, with an expansive collection of sounds and lyrical ideas. Freed from working within the familiar band structure, Dempsey appears to be taking full advantage of operating in solo mode, with terrific results. And while there is a bigger sound on this release and a greater freedom to experiment, just as with that first album, the real strength here lies in the quality and intelligence of the song-writing. From beginning to end in Strange Loop, there is clarity and confidence in the way each piece is crafted.
At more than seven minutes, the opener, ‘The True Sea’ is a bold calling card and a statement of intent for the LP. But Dempsey hasn’t gone the full prog: there are no two minute wailing guitar solos, no overblown meta-narratives. There is, however, a nuanced and subtly developing soundscape, such that, despite the song’s duration, it honestly doesn’t feel that long; there’s always something to hold the listener’s attention. It’s a fine composition showcasing the best of Dempsey: the artist carefully piecing together sounds and ideas.
In the title track that follows, we find him sonically playful in the introduction before the song builds to a strong chorus with a catchy refrain: “Tell me what’s so good about feeling understood”. ‘Idiot Oracle’ then delivers with sweet acoustic guitar, slightly off kilter rhythms and engaging piano lines; it’s a beautifully constructed and lyrically poignant song.
‘Hey History (Don’t Go Changin’)’ is a slow waltz ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Something For Kate album; full of clever lyrical ideas, we also get a nice touch of Brian May in the guitar at the end. Meanwhile the lead single ‘Morningless’ has an energetic Bowie flavour, with its frenetic rhythm and pulsing baritone sax.
‘Be Somebody’ is another haunting track; beginning with gentle guitar finger-picking, it opens up to some intricate and affecting instrumentation. It’s also packed with lines that only Paul Dempsey can deliver: “Baby I’m going to be somebody you can give up on, and if you need me I’ll be in the past just waiting around in your old photographs.”
With dissonant chords that give way to the melodic grip of the chorus, ‘Blindspot’ is another winner, while ‘Iris Black’ is an adept character sketch.
In an album that consistently delivers highlights, ‘Volunteers’ is a standout moment. With a pulsating beat, a striking melody and a kaleidoscope of sounds to close things out, there are shades of Crowded House.
The LP then closes with a shade of bluegrass in ‘Nobody’s Trying to Tell Me Something’; the title is a reference the final track of Midnight Oil’s seminal 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 album, ‘Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something’. It’s an apt connection for an album called Strange Loop, given the innovative loop that ends the vinyl version of that Oils record in an endless run out groove.
Throughout the offering, Dempsey demonstrates a keen awareness of his antecedents and influences, but the material is characteristically his own. Delivering a dazzling array of musical and lyrical ideas, and promising to reward with repeated listens, Strange Loop is an outstanding work from an artist at the height of his powers. Paul Dempsey is surely one of this generation’s finest songwriters.
Strange Loop will be released 13th May on CD, download and vinyl. You can read our recent interview with Paul HERE.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor