, May 23rd, 2012 06:09
YShai Halperin has, in the past, expressed a curiously devout regard for ELO. And it's true that on the string of terrific albums he has released as leader of The Capitol Years, there are indeed certain shades of Jeff Lynne and co, but admitting such a debt to that most divisive of bands is to limit and somewhat belittle the superbly inventive mixture of wider influences that is all Halperin's own. Now recording as Sweet Lights, his sophisticated and gorgeous songwriting has hit new heights.
This is an outstanding record, and one that beautifully showcases the two sides of Halperin: the ability to craft an economical and immediate pop hook, as well as his love of heavy instrumental layers, interweaving parts and rangy, opus-like songs.
Though not on this album, the mesmerising 'You Let Me Down', a single released last year, gave a hint of what sort of thing was on Halperin's mind. About three songs in one and six and a half minutes long, it suggested his artistic peak was near and that more ambitious arrangements were within his grasp after four albums of The Capitol Years' more straightforward and heavily Beatles-inspired AOR. As lovely as those records were, this one – and we can include 'You Let Me Down' as part of the same wider project – is on another plane, so wide-ranging in its scope that it is somewhat difficult to rein in with the shackles of description.
Some elements of ELO certainly remain, such as on the bouncy and relatively unchallenging 'Are We Gonna Work It Out'. However, a more accurate comparison for the album's profounder moments would be George Harrison, in that it marries instant accessibility with an idiosyncratic kind of existential insight on the superb 'Waterfall', with its strings, harpsichord, synthesiser and Halperin's instantly recognisable harmonies. These are all qualities, fans of sophisticated and sincere songwriting will be aware, that made up John Grant's 2010 album Queen of Denmark as well as his previous band, The Czars – even if Halperin is a bit less grimly emotional than that.
The lyrical wit and imagery also bears out that comparison, while anyone disappointed by Rufus Wainwright's latest might find what they were seeking from that arch duke of complicated pop, in Halperin. One final reference point is that, in its up-tempo but unthreatening softness, Wilco's post-A Ghost Is Born work is recalled.
So there are touchstones aplenty (one track, 'The Ballad of Kurt Vile #2', hints at his complex and affectionate relationship with that particular peer), but there are many things about Sweet Lights that could only come from Halperin. One is the undemonstrative drawl with which he delivers his songs. Another is words that comically and pleasantly hint at such first-world problems as urban alienation and disorientation of self, while the 30-second snippet 'Tell Us All About It' demonstrates his peculiarly subtle way of dealing with current affairs.
The whole Halperin package comes together to absorbing effect on opener 'Message On The Wire', which is just about his best ever song. Less than three minutes in length, tight, immaculately produced and immensely satisfying melodically, this is a blissful introduction to Halperin's current sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the closest he comes to the sprawling chapters of 'You Let Me Down' is on climactic closer 'Here Comes The Son'. The journey from the precision of Sweet Lights' first track to the elegance of its last is one that is completely engrossing, and represents an unadulterated masterpiece from a perennially underrated man.