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Richard Youngs
Belief Tom Bolton , March 2nd, 2018 08:55

Exquisite under-the-counter pop from a playful, melancholy inventor.

Richard Youngs is a singular musician, for whom the description ‘unclassifiable’ comes in very handy. He has released an impossible number of albums over the last 25 years, and his collaboration list is a pocket guide to a persistent, shamanic strain of alternative British music. In the past he has been claimed for free folk and improv, and the press release for this latest album, Belief, cheerfully quotes The Wire’s tongue-in-cheek attempt to pin him down as “the post-punk autodidact’s post-punk autodidact”. Put simply, he does what he pleases, and he knows what he’s doing. On Belief, this takes the form of an album masquerading as a conceptual art prank. However, despite conjuring a fog of distraction around these eleven new tracks Youngs is, as always, unable to hide his unerring talent for writing great tunes.

Like most conceptual art, Belief becomes something entirely different when you read the accompanying text. Apparently, Youngs recorded Belief as a 21st-century bedroom album, playing all the instruments, sampling all the samples, and constructing beats which he then “played back at randomly determined tempos in durations mapped to randomly chosen major label songs”. There’s no way to know which randomly chosen songs may lie beneath the ones we can actually hear, but as a sort of songwriting divination the concept is both tantalising and funny. Youngs claims he intended Belief as an art project, planning to send it to major labels hoping to collect rejection letters. Instead, Tim Burgess heard the defining ‘gnostic pop’ he was seeking for his new record label, O Genesis.

This would be a good backstory for any album, whether taken literally or not, but Belief is much more - a set of songs that are distinctive and alluring, and amount to something special. This is a work of transcendent melancholy, where Youngs lays his insecurities out for inspection, transformed into the most gorgeous under-the-counter pop. The box of discarded samples he raided for his bedroom beats included tape hiss, extractor fan noise and a very 80s drum machine. On the opening track, ‘My Own 21st Century’, they roll across the frequencies like a jet plane crashing to earth. Youngs’ tense treble reverberates as he sings “Do you play requests / to alleviate my misery?”; he sounds like David Bowie reborn, an industrial cousin to ‘Where Are We Now?’

The entire album is in a minor key, and tracks with titles including ‘Nebulosity’, ‘Bewilderment’ and ‘In Another Fog’ send a clear message. ‘Nebulosity’ is a glitch-ridden lament of great beauty, backing vocals crooning with a delicious intensity. ‘Bewilderment’ sounds like Bowie too, this time ‘Five Years’, played with a detuned acoustic guitar and perhaps some kind of clicking, mechanical toy. It is a personal song, where Youngs seems to reach out for connections to collective experience of dislocation. However, although he mines a seam of deep melancholy, Youngs is too clever to give listeners only what they expect. ‘Can You Not See My Intensity?’ has a squealing grunge guitar breaking over a thicket of interference. ‘Feeling Like Dystopia’ has a melody delivered via reversed samples that are both unidentifiable and lovely. The final track, ‘Great Breath of Wonderment’, combines a deadpan vocal, a chiming guitar figure, and a beat like the rustling of beetles crossing dead leaves. It is a fitting conclusion to an album that conjures musical ghosts to create an inspired, junk shop, song cycle for the times. Richard Youngs is a consummate inventor, a musician with the constant ability to write new songs that seem familiar from moment their strange samples kick in. Belief is an album for repeated listening, offering consolation, delight and reward in generous portions.