During these strange and unnerving days of world empires in crisis it seems apt that Josh Pyke would call his latest album Rome.
It’s an album of its time, imperiously rich in its sonic grandeur, and full of insightful philosophical reflections on mortality and exploring a world struggling to find a sense of equilibrium.
There are no weak songs here. Every track has been beautifully crafted, but there could be some who might find its unwavering consistency of pace, tone and thematic focus an issue.
What might appear as a lack of light and shade is easily countered by the album’s lush arrangements, and the arresting beauty apparent in its deceptively simple song structures.
Easy comparisons can be made with the best work of Sufjan Stevens and Elliot Smith if you are in need of an aural reference point, but these songs have a depth and originality all of their own. If these songs had been recorded fifty years ago, it would be easy to imagine that they would have already become as venerated as those in the canon of tunes created throughout the Bleecker Street folk boom of the sixties.
The album’s aural template is clearly set by the gentle acoustic guitar and treated piano that introduces the first song, Old Times Sake. Pyke’s voice sounds richer and more weathered than it did when Middle Of The Hill first entered our collective musical awareness all those years ago, and it is now imbued with an unexpected gravitas as he invites us into his quiet reflection on our shared past and present existential dilemmas.
The lovely layered 90s indie pop production of Doubting Thomas is a gem, but its sparkle is dimmed a little by the fact it is sequenced to come immediately before the wonderful I Thought We Were A River, which is destined to become a classic, and is probably my favourite track on the album.
The river has long been used in song as a metaphor for life, for renewal, and for catharsis, and Pyke manages to find yet another new take on its application for this purpose as he memorably sings: ‘I am not a river, I am not the sea / I am the land that the river made out of me’. It’s delivered as an anthemic line, and one that is destined to be quoted for years to come.
Priorities being reappraised forms the thematic basis for the next two songs, Home and Still We Carry On. Both offer up mature, thoughtful insights into life’s more perplexing questions. The latter song’s concluding statement, ‘Nothing. We are nothing / Yet still we carry on…‘, looks a little defeatist when simply read off the page, but embedded in the glorious musical melange in which it is placed here, it is more like a challenge to us all to reject this sentiment and to summon the will to change our negative perspective.
That challenge is reiterated in Don’t Let It Wait, a song afloat on a bed of gorgeous melancholy that references our current global anxiety in its realistic declaration that ‘some years you won’t hold as close to your heart‘ as others. It is yet another great song.
You’re My Colour is an evocative highpoint too, as it slowly reveals its pastoral beauty to the listener, with Pyke sharing an epiphany that: ‘we are all particles of dust and dying stars‘ against an emotionally affective musical backdrop.
The quality of song craft never wanes throughout the album, and the last two tracks, Old Songs New and Where Goes The Girl, both enhanced by the use of glorious strings orchestrations, are as good as anything that has come before them.
The strength of an album can usually be measured by the number of tracks it contains that are ‘skip button fodder’ and, on Rome, there simply are none.
It is the best album Josh Pyke has produced to date, and it strikes a chord of hope for us all in a time of crumbling empire that deserves as wide an audience as possible.
Josh Pyke’s new album Rome is due to be released on 28 August 2020. You can pre-order a copy here: Josh Pyke Official Site
COVID-19 restrictions permitting, Josh Pyke is due to play at the Lion Arts Factory on October 17 2020. Tickets are available here: Moshtix – Josh Pyke