Time and time again, English indie folk act Noah and the Whale have managed to reinvent their sound. Their 2008 debut release, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, was youthful and whimsical folk-pop at its finest. 2009’s The First Days of Spring showed the band’s maturation with grandiose, melancholic symphonies conceptualizing singer and chief songwriter Charlie Fink’s breakup with ex-girlfriend Laura Marling. The group’s 2011 album Last Night on Earth showed their biggest sonic departure to date, emphasizing more synthetic elements, pop hooks and glossy production.
And so now we find the band with their latest record, Heart of Nowhere. Like its predecessors, this album does not try to emulate the sound of the album that came before it. It is more mature than Peaceful, more hopeful than Spring and more organic than Last Night. Simply put, these are catchy, well-produced songs that show the band thinking outside the realm of folk.
The album’s instrumental opener, the aptly titled “Introduction,” represents everything an interlude should be. Building from a simple but infectious marimba melody, soaring strings envelope the mix and transform the piece into a cinematic soundscape.
The title track is a jubilant orchestration of chiming guitars and violins. Lyrics like “So take a chance and leave tonight/ Sarah’s waiting in a car outside” evoke the aesthetics of Born to Run-era Bruce Springsteen. Guest vocalist Anna Calvi gives a standout vocal performance.
Springsteen is a prevalent influence that carries over into other tracks like the anthemic “All Through the Night.” Squealing, distorted guitar solos and danceable rhythms make this one of the album’s choice cuts. The rapid-fire violin refrains in “Lifetime” are among the album’s livelier moments. The violins are tempered by an infectious drum beat and lyrics about the tribulations of growing up. On “Silver and Gold,” Fink muses “Somebody asked me ‘What you’re gonna do with your life?’/ And I stared out into nothing/ Searching for the answer that’s right.”
“One More Night” is one of the album’s more subdued, atmospheric songs. The song’s strong vocal hooks are aided by effect-laden guitars, ethereal keyboards and pitter-patter hi-hat rhythms.
Rhythmically, “Still After All These Years” is a key track on the album. Drummer Michael Petulla lays down a killer funk drum beat that settles under a bluesy, groove-heavy guitar solo. This song provides a more carefree, relaxed addition to the album’s overall tone.
“There Will Come a Time” was the perfect choice for the album’s leadoff single. Danceable rhythms and big choruses supplement sing-along-ready lines like “There will come a time/Where you will need your friends tonight.” The penultimate track “Now Is Exactly the Time” epitomizes Noah and the Whale’s maturation. Fink’s lyrical perspective shows the wisdom that can only come from growing up. He sings “victory will be won and lost a thousand times” over melodic, chiming guitars.
Album closer “Not Too Late” is a slow-burning yet uplifting track that serves as a perfect conclusion to Heart of Nowhere. The introductory guitar line is one of the catchiest melodies on the album. Fink leaves the listener with a feeling of hope, singing “You were hoping for so much more/ But it’s not too late/ No, it’s not too late.”
Heart of Nowhere contains few missteps and the songs gel well together. However, the album’s cohesion underscores one of its minor flaws; it is not particularly dynamic. Mid-tempo pop-rock tunes with reverberating guitars constitute the majority of the album. Older songs like “2 Atoms In a Molecule” and “Jocasta” gave the band’s albums a much-needed kick in the pants.
However, the songs are well-constructed and well-produced. Fink’s lyrics are simple and straightforward, but still manage to capture what it means to be young, anxious and contemplative. The instrumentation is equally straightforward, but provides the perfect foundation for Fink’s vocals. The arrangement of the guitars, drums and strings consistently takes simple songs and transforms them into anthems.
More importantly, this album shows that after a series of albums by a band consistently trying new things, Heart of Nowhere might just be where they have found their niche.