Wednesday 6 September 2017

All This Life review, by Nick Bull (@nickbull21)

Eight years. Has it really been eight years between Starsailor releasing All The Plans and All This Life, of which the latter came out last Friday? In that time they've teased us with brilliant headline tours in 2015 and 2016, festival appearances aplenty and two new tracks to supplement the Good Souls: The Greatest Hits release. However, the band's fifth studio album - produced by Embrace guitarist and occasional fifth Starsailor member Richard McNamara - is their first studio album in nearly a decade. And guess what? It's a cracker.

There's plenty here for fans old and new, most notably the key musical ingredients of Love Is Here (James Walsh's powerful voice, the subtleties of Barry Westhead's keyboard and organ playing and the most underrated rhythm section in music today in Stel and Ben Byrne). Add to that the experimental sounds of Silence Is Easy, production as fresh as that on On The Outside and the lyrical themes of All The Plans and it's a commanding return.

In true Starsailor style, the album begins with a powerful opener. Premiered online at the start of July, Listen To Your Heart is a musical tour de force, driven by Ben Byrne's drumming throughout. His playing also makes it easy to overlook Stel's bass riff in the verses, too. Together they compliment each other perfectly, a complete juxtaposition to the "head is saying give up, don't go on it's too much, listen to your heart" battle in the chorus.

All This Life lends its name to both the album title and second song on it. If the record's opener had an emotional dilemma at its heart, this song sees the author in a more definitive mindset. "Gonna find another bed to break, instead of changing the way we feel" sings James in the opening verse. In dark times worldwide, the notion that "in all this life, there's no love without light" is positively reaffirming. Furthermore the video features scenes of Stel serving behind a bar and Ben peeling spuds - what's not to like?

Patience is the name of the game in Take A Little Time, the third track made available online prior to the album's release. Fittingly, the song dates back a number of years - it was originally demoed by the band in late 2014 and has changed considerably since. "Great journeys start with one small step," James Walsh sings in the opening verse, under which sets a bed of his backing vocals. We're not quite talking Bohemian Rhapsody here in terms of complexity, but across the multi-tracked choruses and bridge, not to mention Ben's numerous drum and percussion parts, it's clear that the band put a fair few hours into this one.

Starsailor go funky for Caught In The Middle, which is further confirmation of the band's numerous and varied musical influences. Yet amid Stel's soulful bassline, finger clicks and claps, and Barry's unique keyboard sounds, lyrically and emotionally it's a continuation of the album's emerging theme, one of a relationship breakdown. The second verse is suitably emotive: "Suddenly confusion rings, where we once had peace of mind, can ambition be contained, when there is no other light..."

And that theme continues into Sunday Best, a track that gets better with every listen. It feels post-argument, mid-period of reflection: "How would you feel if I was somewhere else? And how would you feel if it was someone else?". By using guest vocalist Ella McNamara brilliantly in the outro, it feels like the listener gets to hear both sides of the story.

Debuted live during last December's Out In The Fields Of Winter Tour, Blood is surely going to keep its place in the band's sets for the foreseeable future. Helped by a mantra of a chorus ("All the blood that I bled, all nights that we cried, all the demons we fed, should have kept the same side...") it builds up to fantastic musical crescendo to end.

Another track played in concert prior to its official release, Best Of Me includes one of my favourite bridges James Walsh has ever written. "And if you don't wanna fall out, don't kick when I come down, kick when I come down. Better help each other out, before we go to ground, before we go to ground," he sings, ripping into it like a man possessed, as if there's a battle that needs winning. The "woahs" in the chorus should be a crowd pleaser, too.

Break The Cycle contains the line "running out of words, running out of words to write". There's no harm in admitting writer's block: heck, 300 words or so on that very subject gave Springsteen one of his biggest hits in Dancing In The Dark. This song is also the start of the best narrative four-pack I'd say the band have ever laid out on any album.

Fallout is already a hit with the fans - and also Barry Westhead's favourite on the album. The brilliant melody combined with a cross stick drum rhythm, crunching guitar riff, moody bass line and movie score-esque strings adds to the tense, stand-off nature of this masterpiece. Thematically, it appears that a resolution is near: "Are we destined for a life of blame, or are we ready to embrace the change?" I'm not too sure we'll hear it live, but James has already begun adding excerpts into Tell Me It's Not Over...

My go-to song on the album is FIA (F**k It All), which is also the longest studio recording the band have released to date (I'm not counting the secret track to end Coming Down on Love Is Here). It sounds like nothing the band have released previously, yet it sits nicely at home in the back catalogue. James's ever growing falsetto confidence continues throughout (he switches out of it in style for the "doesn't matter what we want if it hurts them now" line in verse two) and is complimented by some spacey keyboard parts. It's one to listen to through headphones late at night.

In signature style, All This Life ends with a pensive, stripped back track, although no previous album closer has been as heartfelt as No One Else. Track length aside (it clocks in at just over two minutes) it wouldn't be out of place on Dylan's heartbreak album Blood On The Tracks. Its confessional lyrics ("No one else can calm the fear in me, no one else can hurt me like you do") and beautiful, hair-raising vocal from James remind me why I fell in love with this band 16-and-a-half years ago.

This is, undoubtedly, Starsailor's finest hour. There are songs perfect for a party playlist, others for a quiet night in. This isn't just Starsailor's Sunday Best, it's an album that perfectly fills the eight-year gap since their last. All This Life is out now! Grab your copy here