Lawrence Arabia

The Sparrow

Four years ago, in June 2008, before Lawrence Arabia had signed with Bella Union and before he had truly arrived as a sweetheart among critics with his second album Chant Darling, James Milne told me in an interview: "I had this idea that my whole life would be this absurdist art project. I’d be Lawrence Arabia but always dress up on stage as Lawrence of Arabia. But I couldn’t pull it off and now I’m stuck with a stupid name that’s impossible to Google.”

Of course, Milne presents a dapper and dandy image of his alter ego that thwarts the visual theatricality of that early idea, but the absurdism that defines his career lives on. Eccentricity of a certain anachronistically British variety has permeated his curious, beautiful songs ever since his first album in 2006 as well as previous bands The Reduction Agents and The Brunettes. The Sparrow‘s lyrics are spotted with that familiar detached irony, wit, and withering disapproval of the social climbers and misanthropes that make up his songs. In keeping with Chant Darling‘s ‘The Beautiful Young Crew’, here Milne frequently makes clear his apathetic bemusement at the abstract, generalised and wholly mythological creature that is the ‘hipster’.

But as Milne enters his early 30s, there is a restraint and quietude in place of the puckishness of before. This quality is largely expressed melodically and instrumentally; lyrically, if anything, Milne is at risk of stretching this hyper-literate, slightly camp persona a little too far. Mostly though, there is a pleasing lack of urgency that gives makes this album an interesting step forward.

One thing Milne seems to be able to churn out at will is an instantly accessible pop hook that sounds like it should have been around for 40 years. On Chant Darling it was ‘Apple Pie Bed’, and here it is final track ‘Legends’, and the difference between these two tracks betrays the contrast between the two records. The older song, a riotous pop masterpiece with nonsense lyrics, lacks the depth of ‘Legends’, ambitious and string-laden and as good as anything he has ever done. It is a testament to Milne’s new sophistication that ‘Legends’ sounds a lot like Field Music.

Indeed, for whatever reason, it is easier to identify clear influences on The Sparrow than on Chant Darling or, particularly, amid the searing originality of his debut. The sad nostalgia of Ray Davies rears its head on ‘The Listening Times’ while it is almost surprising that ‘The Bisexual’ was included at all given how flagrantly it echoes Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Snatches of Ram-era Paul McCartney are also part of Milne’s arsenal, as they have always been.

The album’s best track, ‘Early Kneecappings’ overcomes some tedious lyrics to make an experiment in minimalism an engrossing success. Driven by two piano notes that vary only in volume and intensity, Milne floats his lofty vocals over this pattern in a hazy way that is at odds with the rest of the record. It’s about as close as he gets to experimental, and while his strict musical conservatism does lead to excellence like ‘Legends’, the forceful edge he arrives at here is something welcome and all too rare.

Now returned to his native Auckland after several years in London, it’s possible that being a large fish in a small pond – as well as the relative isolation and the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand culture – could see Lawrence Arabia head into a renaissance in the next few years. Yet to make the truly magnificent album that is in him, he remains ‘one to watch’, as he has been for years.

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