‘9 Songs About Love‘ is JE Sunde’s third solo record and what a supremely melodic pop-folk treat it is. It’s simple, wide-eyed loveliness may surprise, considering the LP was born from Sunde’s realisation that he might be at something of a crossroads in his life. Years of hard yakka touring and recording with family and friend in his gem of a folk band The Daredevil Christopher Wright and a couple of solo records had garnered sporadic attention, some slight critical props and a small yet eager band of admirers but not sign of a commercial breakthrough.
Similarly he was starting to question the impact this focus on a singing / songwriting career was having on his private life, wondering if it had done something to “screw up my chance to find a partner or happiness”. Rather than brood on these challenges or rush off back to the 9-5 grind though, he did what musicians tend to do in these circumstances, he wrote some songs about it and recorded an album. To be precise he recorded nine songs and called the album ‘9 Songs About Love’.
For such a winningly honest and accessible album to emerge from a time of both personal and global confusion and isolation is a simple joy to be thankful for. It’s a solo LP for sure but it feels more of a discernible collaboration than anything he’s yet done. Guided by co-producers and buddies Shane Leonard and Brian Joseph (whose earlier credits give a real sense of what’s on offer here; Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Kathleen Edwards, Phil Cook and Paul Simon) ‘9 Songs…’ is a beautiful sounding record. It has clean, pin-sharp sonics that emphasise all the players at just the right moments. Whilst at the same time there is a deep resonant intimacy that provides a warm and welcoming space in which to experience Sunde’s songs.
And what devoutly melodic songs they are. This LP sees Sunde worshipping at the church of melodicism with a fundamental zeal that borders the evangelical; no matter their tone or tempo, what shines through these songs is the TUNE. It is absolutely not faint praise to say that at its core ‘9 Songs…’ is a pure and simple pop record. Light and airy but with enough substance to satisfy. Hearing it is like the first time you tasted aero bubbles. Time will tell if it has enough heft to stand repeated gorging without becoming overly cloying.
Across the record Sunde plays guitar, keys and sings lead but it may be his compatriot Andrew Thoreen who steals the show here. He has some keen bass parts, playing like the lead instrument but more defining of the record are what the credits call his ‘trombone choirs’. Time and again it sounds as if there is a mini Markham Main Colliery band chugging away in the arrangements, bringing the songs to life. It is a lovely noise that is integral to the record, enhancing the mood of individual songs and the record as a whole rather than simply adding splashes of colour as the brass is often relegated to doing. Take the track ‘I Love You Your My Friend’ as a perfect illustration with the T-bone chorus wandering in around half way through to quietly and profoundly lift the song to another level, it’s not quite Black Dyke Mills Band with the Unthanks but is no less affecting in its own right.
It may well be musically unassuming but lyrically ‘9 Songs…’ is a very different beast. Sunde’s writing is both emotionally honest and embellished with poetic challenges for the grey matter. Take his rhyming of “crazy desert mystic” with “existential sceptic” in what appears to be an attempt to make sense of his own ontological position regarding the conflict between the speculative nature of the existence of god and the (hopefully) real, but as yet unproven ‘woman who will make me what I should be’. Not being able to find a girlfriend never sounded so post-graduate.
His own explanation of the track ‘I Don’t Care to Dance’ perhaps warns us what to expect “It is a tune indebted to the poetic approach of early Leonard Cohen with the same ‘future-past’ aesthetic of Adrienne Lenker or Andy Shauf. It’s about a man finding hope that love might be possible for him after having resigned himself that it wasn’t. It also speaks to the broken expectations and models that are given to men in how they should pursue relationships. Models and expectations that so often turn toxic”. More songs about cars (or chocolate) and girls this is not.
Whilst the record brings to mind so many different artists – Nilsson, Paul Simon and Mapache hunting foxes (only the Fleetest ones, mind) in the Laurel Canyon perhaps – it remains unmistakably Sunde’s throughout. There is a craft to how all the pieces fit together that creates something a uniquely pleasurable confection. ‘9 Songs About Love’ is a thoroughly humble record, open-hearted and generous, musically naïve but lyrically knowing and a pleasure from start to finish.