Luke Sital-Singh was, reportedly, a fan of loud rock music in his teens, but finding inspiration in the energy and passion of Damien Rice’s legendary live shows he ditched the metal band and converted to the angsty folk singer-songwriter we’ve come to know and appreciate. A string of EPs released around 2012 (produced by Snow Patrol’s Iain Archer) caught the eye of Parlophone records and the subsequent release of the single ‘Nothing Stays the Same’ in October 2013 made the UK top 100. Having come a long way from singing ‘Canonball’ at open mic events, ‘The Fire Inside’ album peaked at 43 in the UK charts in 2014. While the two studio albums have explored creativity and inventiveness, notably using big multi-tracked harmonies to great effect, the core appeal of Luke Sital-Singh is a remarkable voice, sad songs, and impassioned emotional performances.
‘A Golden State’ is the third studio album. Teamed up again with producer Tommy McLaughlin who also worked on ‘Time is a Riddle’ (2017) it was recorded in Portland’s Jackpot Studio (R.E.M., The Decemberists). The vocal is quintessential male English folk singer and although there are still traces of Damien Rice it’s been smoothed out and reminds of Tom Chaplin and Ben Howard with maybe hint of Thom Yorke. In the promo notes Luke explains that previous albums were recorded live whereas this one was tracked one instrument at a time and features session musicians. As is the current trend a vintage ribbon microphone was used to add warmth and huskiness to the recording. The vocal is for sure the centrepiece of all the tracks.
The opening track ‘Lover’ is probably the best example of a vocal that is up close and personal, front and centre. Allowed plenty of harmonic space by the sparse drum, bass, left-hand piano accompaniment it really delivers. Following on is ‘Raise Well’ which sounds much like track one but with a little acoustic guitar strumming in the mix. The ‘I want to raise well, not raise hell’ wordplay might not be Luke at his stunning storytelling best but we are treated to a rich harmonies on the pre-chorus which really lifts the track.
‘Los Angeles’ features a delicately fingerpicked pattern on acoustic guitar which kind of drifts in and out of time though each measure creates tension and movement. This is a confessional, autobiographical song about moving to LA with his much braver wife. It’s full of doubt and the need for reassurance. “Do we know what we’re looking for” he asks, and what if we fail?
From a pure songwriting perspective ‘The Last Day’ is the diamond in the coal mine. Excellent from start to finish. The song is beautifully conceived and constructed. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Jam-packed with love, tenderness and humility. It’s a track that deserves to get listened to over and over and added to personal favourites playlists. In the last verse Luke reflects on all the faces he’s known and asks ‘Did I thank them all?’ Simple, perfect, heartfelt, honest and true. A real gem. Progressing through the album we find ‘Souvenir’ which features a slightly annoying synth bass and an unobtrusive snare on the backbeat which don’t really add much interest or dynamics, and by the time we get to ‘Love is Hard Enough Without the Winter’ it’s just guitar and vocal. As with many releases the deeper cuts feel like they got less studio time and creative attention, but the songs stand up on their own. Luke seems incapable of writing or performing a disappointing song.
In a 2018 TED Talk Luke shared his thoughts on the essence of his own songwriting. Acknowledging the sorrow, grief, longing, misery and many dark themes that inhabit his songs, he spoke of the importance of expressing these hard, but commonly experienced, emotions in music. As a means of catharsis. As a way of finding community. He talked of the bittersweet poignant beauty of the impermanence, fragility and brevity of things. To some listeners ‘A Golden State’ will feel a little lightweight in this context. It feels more comfortable and at ease with itself, somewhat satisfied with the world and lacks the anxiety and depth of previous work.