Noah and the Whale - Heart of Nowhere
As fellow fiddlers Mumford & Sons prepare to headline the Pyramid Stage in 2013, Noah and the Whale go humbly about the business of releasing their fourth album. Heart of Nowhere follows Last Night on Earth, 2011's breakthrough-of-sorts, with little fanfare; despite the commercial achievements of Charlie Fink and his boys paling in comparison to the clutch of Grammy Awards possessed by Marcus and his banjo-botherers, album number four represents a continuing ascent to steady-as-they-go greatness. Even better? Not every song sounds like 'Little Lion Man' or 'The Cave' with a reconfigured 'anthemic' chorus. Having possessed a lightness of touch since they whistled their way into our hearts with 'Five Years Time' (which, if you remember, looked like being their one hit wonder), on Heart of Nowhere the band once again demonstrates its knack for crafting appealing folk-pop - even if you might have to catch it on one of the other stages, fighting not to be drowned out by Mumford's caterwauling.
'Pop' is a key word in the preceding sentence; while the band have never shied away from a hearty chorus or an upbeat tune (despite sophomore album The First Days of Spring showing they could gracefully pull off downbeat breakup misery), this is undoubtedly a pop-rock record with some folk shadings. In essence, Heart of Nowhere can be read as Last Night on Earth Part 2, and listeners who felt that record sacrificed the band's earlier folk credentials for something more bland will likely experience the same feeling here. However, just like Last Night on Earth, the nuances reveal themselves after two or three listens and you'll find yourself smiling like you did when 'Give It All Back' or 'Waiting for My Chance to Come' took hold of your heart. The touchstones are the same, the songs revelling in the same big American storytelling Brandon Flowers has been enamoured with over the past five years, only Noah aren't so heavy-handed and filter the Springsteen/Petty references with a winning English edge. Themes crossover from the last album, Fink singing about escaping from a hopeless hometown, technicoloured teenage dreams, and the promise - and eventual disappointment - of young love.
The broad nature means it's all very accessible, but the components also create a cohesion that shows the band confidently moving in a direction of their own control. The stirring 'Introduction'/'Heart of Nowhere' harks back to the band's earlier days, with the record's most widescreen string orchestrations and a cameo from Anna Calvi (continuing the band's glowing track record - Laura Marling, Emmy the Great - in choosing leading ladies), but coats it with a radio-flirting sheen and a big, gutsy shout-out-loud chorus. From here, the record travels to its own drivetime drumbeat; at times you may worry the band have gone too far down the dusty road, but then a song like 'Silver and Gold' will redeem itself with its heartfelt plea of "show a little faith". If you do exactly that, then you will find lots to love: from 'Still After All These Years', the poppiest moment and a paean to lost love that's far away from Mumford, to the more reflective slow burns such as 'One More Night' and 'Not Too Late'. The latter strips a lot of the production away and might make you miss the more lo-fi approach of Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down; an eventual successor in spirit to that record would be nice, agreed, but for now there's much to enjoy here. On whatever festival stage you may find it.