A record which singlehandedly destroys the cliché of the ‘difficult third album’, possibly forever.
“Oh I just don’t know where to begin,” Elvis Costello once sang in the opening line of his classic New Wave hit ‘Accidents Will Happen’, and to be honest, neither did this reviewer when it came to summing up ‘Highlights of the Low Nights’, the third album by Glasgow sextet James Edwyn and the Borrowed Band. The dilemma being that when it comes to an album like ‘Highlights of the Low Nights’, which starts off strikingly well, continues brilliantly and maintains that ridiculously high early standard all the way through to the very last note of the very last of its 12, often quite lengthy, tracks,. there’s really so much to say and so many angles to follow (and all of it positive) that by the time we’d finished, it’d be way past whatever the online equivalent is of pub closing time.
Sticking to sweeping generalisations for brevity’s sake, then, maybe one reason why ‘Highlights’ is so successful is that it maintains JE&TBB’s indy-rock/pop leanings of their previous album ‘High Fences’, mixed in with dabs of soul and Americana, as well as mining another deep ream of pithy, painfully insightful, scarily intelligent lyrics. Just to begin at the beginning, the opening track ‘Gasoline’ ticks all those boxes, summing up a person with – to use a great Spanish saying this time – “a great future behind them” in three lines flat.
“Gasoline is what they called you in your day
You ain’t set no world on fire
But you burned out anyway.”
There’s plenty more of that kind of emotional bleakness on the 11 remaining tracks, as well as some deftly placed nods towards classic Americana tracks, like Springsteen’s ‘The River’ on ‘Buy Me A Ticket.’
“So I went down to the river
‘Cause I hear that’s what you do
But my life’s no song
I left that place with nothing new
Except a line or two.”
A lot of ‘Highlights of the Low Nights’ seems to centre on cheerful subjects like the price of failure, loneliness and disillusionment, but in keeping with that sage musical philosophy of “play the sad songs happy and the happy songs sad” for all its gloomy content, the opener, ‘Gasoline’, is a mid-paced rocker that rolls along with a pleasingly loping beat and ‘Buy Me A Ticket’ has a very snappy, college rock feel to it. And on we go: lyrically for the remaining three-quarters of the album there’s simply no let-up either in the quality of the music or the emotional sucker punches.
But if keeping the ball in the air words-and-music-wise that long is no mean feat, the bedrock of it all is that across the 12 tracks ‘Highlights of the Low Nights’ oozes versatility and confidence musicianship. For one thing, JE&TBB aren’t scared of giving each song as much room as it needs to breathe. ‘Gasoline’, for example, starts with a two minute instrumental introduction, building and building the pace and tension all the way up from a single organ note to a swirl of guitars and drums. Equally the multiple changes of pace on another standout song, ‘Fade Away’ means the dropping away or picking up of the depth of the accompaniment – switching from a gently paced guitar ballad into a kind of full-blown celestial choir – matches the mood of the words perfectly. Then the nightmarish atmosphere on ‘Jeremiah’ and the eerily troubled chorus:
“There’s just something about you making me uneasy
There’s just something about you making me unkind”
digs deep into a kind of 1970s funk, all swirly organs and crunchy distorted guitars that sends pleasurable and uncomfortable shivers down the spine all at once.
But for all the constant lightness of touch and ultra-polished nature of the arrangements, and for all singalong anthems are conspicuous by their absence in this tautly thoughtful album, these are much harder-bitten, cleverer songs than their faultless presentation makes them seem on the surface. And the three-way tension between upbeat, massively energetic music, the tightness of the production and the bleakness of much of the content means there’s a heck of a lot to absorb. But on an album as colossal and as enjoyable as ‘Highlights of the Low Nights’ , no-one’s going to be complaining about a multiple repeat listenings. And to end with another sweeping generalisation, but one that happens to be true in this case, there’s surely no better sign of a gold standard production than that.