Aqualung - Strange and Beautiful
Strange and Beautiful, releasing on March 22nd, is lovely and melodic, overfilled with quiet piano work and brooding vocals, moody stories that seem perfect for a quiet and rainy day or a thoughtful night. There are songs on the album that are catchy, as well, but Aqualung never ventures into upbeat pop territory with this album. Instead, the listener is treated to contemplative melodies and the inner peerings of a talented musician.
Aqualung is, essentially, Matt Hales. He hails from the U.K. and has made a name for himself there with two albums: a self-titled debut and his follow up, Still Life. For his U.S. debut, songs from both of his U.K. albums have been pulled together to form Strange and Beautiful. The album starts off with the title track, which introduced the U.K. to Aqualung when it was used in a Volkswagen commercial. Hales sings the simple refrain, "I'll put a spell on you / and when I wake you / I'll be the first thing you see / and you'll realize that you love me." It is instantly appealing and one of the most pop-oriented tracks on the album, yet manages to not be forgettable, either. It's a sorrow-tinged love song that introduces the listener to Hales' voice, which comes across throughout the album as contemplative and searching, sad and thoughtful without succumbing to outright depression.
The album is mostly coherent, yet also varied. Being a mix of tracks from two different records, one would worry that the music would not always flow as a whole. However, some of the songs have been remixed to address this potential problem and the album does indeed flow very well, moving from track to track without ever jarring the listener, though it flows better in the second half than the first. While the album as a whole is strong, there is certainly a differing level of quality amongst the songs. The title track is great but the next two are merely decent songs, never reaching the sort of heights as the first. But the fourth track, "Brighter Than Sunshine," then comes in and picks the record back up. This is a much more positive, upbeat track that, pardon the pun, really shines. The album then moves into a mixture of strong and simply good songs before flowing into an amazing second half.
Interestingly, as "Brighter Than Sunshine" makes clear, even an upbeat song from Aqualung feels mere steps away from tumbling into dark corners of the mind. This is a strength of the album--the ability to always be within reach of the more melancholic states of mind. Combine that with the fact that this tactic never seems indulgent or tiresome and you have the perfect album for when you're in a quiet mood. Hales' voice is smooth and soothing, confident over his piano work and always imparting a sense of weariness that, nevertheless, does not overwhelm or depress the music. It's a fine line he straddles, being able to perform an upbeat track while keeping the listener aware that sorrow often comes hand in hand with happiness and joy, feeling it lurking there under his words, ready to come forward at any moment.
Pain, meanwhile, is readily apparent throughout Strange and Beautiful. Loss and disappointment is a constant refrain. Yet, the album seems full of hope, as well. This is not the work of someone who has given up on life or become defeated by disappointment, but rather by someone who recognizes setbacks, appreciates challenges, and uses failure to push himself forward.
Aqualung is original, yet familiar. You'll hear definite strands of Coldplay throughout the album and there are moments that sound like less-eccentric Radiohead as Hales' voice takes on qualities of Thom Yorke. Thankfully, though, the songs never come across as derivative. Aqualung's music is clearly its own, building on the artistry of others rather than attempting to mimic it.
The first half of the album is solid but a bit uneven, moving through a series of songs that vary in their sound. The greatest strength comes toward the end of the album, starting with "You Turn Me Round." This is where the record's atmosphere fully kicks in. The songs become darker and more melancholic, laced with pain and too much experience. The vocals are gorgeous and the piano work encompassing. "If I Fall" is soft and subdued, plaintively asking for safety and comfort. The following song, "Easier To Lie," is a strong and subversively up-tempo track.
Strange and Beautiful's final two songs are magnificent, offering a wonderful cap to the album. "Extra Ordinary Thing" is a haunting lullaby, with Hales' voice sounding consistently on the verge of being overwhelmed with emotion. The piano is perfect, building on and accentuating the lyrics to create a pervading sense of beauty and unease. The final track, "Another Little Hole," perfectly sums up the album, continuing the quiet and haunting tone of "Extra Ordinary Thing." Hales bookends the opening song's tale of putting a spell on his love by singing, "The day is breaking / and time is taking / the love we're making away. / The gods have spoken / the spell is broken / and love will tear us apart." It's a sorrowful song and not particularly hopeful, but it is beautiful. And that, perhaps, is how best this album--and Hales' expressive lyrics--can be described: beautiful. Sorrowful and lilting, yes, and haunting and thoughtful, without a doubt, but first and foremost beautiful. How appropriate the album's title turns out to be.