Paul Steel - April and I
Paul Steel is from Brighton and this is his debut album. With consummate modesty and uncommon good sense, it clocks in at a mere 27 minutes. He is, utterly infuriatingly, just 20 years old. Show-off. He is also, ostensibly, a ‘singer-songwriter’. Mmm. He’s a singer-songwriter in the same way Brunel was a builder or Michaelangelo was a painter. He is, it has to be said, and I’ve fought this, so bear with me, touched with genius. And you don’t get much of that round these parts right now. My colleague Luke McNaney has been good enough to alert you to Paul Steel’s talents. I can only concur and then some.
Listen. ‘April and I’ tells the story of an imaginary friend Paul had when he was a child (“I closed my eyes and summoned up a girl named April !”) and comes as a single, segued piece. A lesser talent would have written 10 songs and glued them together. Once you’ve heard ‘April and I’ you feel much more inclined to entertain such a crazy conceit because this song psych-el works in such a clearly un-forced, organic manner you simply can’t imagine it’s component parts any other way. After the lilting overture of ‘April’s Theme’, we kick off proper with ‘April’; it’s “What’s the greatest thing ?” chorus soars with joy. ‘Worst Day' follows’, its hook just as overpowering, melody spilling all over the shop.
At this point, from, I admit, a point of utter ignorance, my attention levels multiplied tenfold. They can get their own tea, I thought. This needs all of me. By the time the august swell of ‘Take it or Leave It’ sashays into view, I’ve folded. It sends two massive hooks arcing above, then a third just to hammer the point home. There is much to admire and love about these uncommonly diligent arrangements. Steel’s musical prospect is classical pop, subtly orchestrated and bringing to mind far too many of the greats. When some fat man in a suit gives him a lot of money to record his full-length follow-up in LA later this year and you all succumb, most comparisons will be with The Beach Boys. On one level, that’s fair enough. The production is most un-British and very Californian. The multi-tracked vocals and banks of counterpoint harmonies, plenty of “Whoo-ooo’s” and “Paa-paa-paa’s”, the strings, the recurring musical motifs – all these point to Brian Wilson’s sonic élan. You will pick your own reference point but I hear echoes of Jane Siberry, Rufus Wainwright, Prefab Sprout, ELO, Dean Freidman, Ben Folds. Others will surely announce themselves over time.
Of course, just when you think you have him down as a man of taste and endeavour, the nutzoid plink-plonk of ‘Honkin’ (On my Crackpipe)’, all Sesame Street singalong and worryingly exultant bonhomie backing, poops on your Sunday Times. (Because it’s quite clear by now that Steel is not an eager-to-please chancer, I let myself laugh along.) During the heady rise of the intro to penultimate song, ‘April and I’, I’m ready, say it again, to declare this athletic and angular musician a genius. Which, of course, is as daft as it is wrong, but, judging by the pathetic, under-achieving twaddle that these days allows the earnest to take plaudits previously reserved for the genuinely creative, it’s easy to get carried away. But, let’s not stand on ceremony, ‘April and I’ is a sensation. It is, let there be no mistake, an album of rare virtuosity, classic pop song-writing and joyous soul. As a narrative it brims with enough child-like wonder to put the Ahlbergs to shame. Try this - when was the last time you floated towards the end of an album of popular music and found yourself thinking that the melody you just heard was actually witty ?! (For some of the orchestral endeavours attempted herein you should be holding up 5.9). I’m adding another point simply because not one song on ‘April and I’ starts with a strummed acoustic guitar and progresses in 4/4 time.
In summary, probably best to keep the heart-over-head eulogies in reserve for now, but, as a statement of intent, ‘April and I’ crows with chutzpah, is simply fathoms deep, shines with rare brilliance. Goodness sagacious me. No-one, surely, can be this good.