Nick Bollinger reviews an album of bittersweet longing from Lawrence Arabia.
Nostalgia can be defined as a longing for a time in one’s past, and a key to those feelings can be hearing the music one grew up with. But can music evoke nostalgia even if you’ve never heard it before? Here’s an album that made me feel nostalgic almost from the opening notes.
To start with, the past is the actual subject of more than a few of the songs. There’s a voice Lawrence Arabia (recording name of James Milne) establishes early on, and which recurs throughout the ten tracks, who is almost like a narrator or character in a book. That voice is male, middle-class, suburban, of indeterminate age, but old enough to look back on his younger self, alternately wistful and the rueful. (Definitive song title: ‘What Became Of That Angry Young Man?’)
The sense of longing that is not just transmitted by the words but the music as well. And yet the period evoked is oddly non-specific. Milne hasn’t simply dialled up some retro sounds to signal the past. The longing seems to be embedded in the chord sequences, the plaintive rising of the melodies, the stoic ache of Milne’s voice.
Of course it’s pretty clear that Milne does have his favourite musical phases, which he happily nods to at different points during the album. There’s a flavour of disco-era-‘Listen To What The Man Said’-McCartney about ‘Another Country’ (this is, after all, a guy who once fronted a Paul McCartney tribute band.)
Again, though, it’s some alchemy that occurs between the music and the wry reflection of the lyrics that creates the sense of nostalgia. And it doesn’t even seem to matter whether we feel nostalgic about the same things as Milne. It’s the longing of the character he’s created here that we experience as listeners.
Milne co-produced the album with Mike Fabulous of The Black Seeds. The pair have worked together before, on the Fabulous/Arabia album Unlimited Buffet, and this new disc shares some of that album’s sonic furnishings. There are weird little dub sounds that pop up here and there, that push things further away from 60s retro.
Absolute Truth finds Milne refining his craft in ever more subtle ways. The melodies are daring and lovely, the lyrics bittersweet. And the whole thing gives me a sense of yearning for the past – if not my own, then somebody’s.
Songs featured: Sweet Dissatisfaction, Brain Gym, Mask Of Maturity, Another Country, O Heathcote, I Waste My Time, What Became Of That Angry Young Man?
Absolute Truth is available on Flying Nun Records.