Review Summary: Not an artist's pathetic attempt to make himself feel better, but spiritual enumeration, and certainly one of the best of 2009.
You know a band means business when they kick off their album with Richard Strauss-like grandiosity in the form of a heavy kettle drum, strings, piano, guitar and a wavering violin that sounds one-part singing saw. Charlie Fink’s vocals rise like steam with a Stuart Murdoch echo, “It’s the first day of spring/and my life is starting over again.” Thus begins The First Days of Spring, Noah and the Whale’s version of the quintessential, sprawling break-up album. To call it ambitious would be laughably glib; when was the last time an indie band’s sophomore effort included an orchestra, full narrative and a feature-length film directed by the band’s lead singer?
Unprecedented territory for most, but quite apropos for a group who got their name from a Noah Baumbach film, and whose great reverence for Wes Anderson’s movies can be seen in the form of inside jokes on their MySpace blog posts. Even so, the hints at this sort of massive scope and arduousness were few and far between on their first record, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down. It was a neat little package of charming songs, and poked at the sort of cutesy indie-pop that might land you on a Paste sampler CD, but without enough consequence to become universally-renowned.
This time around, the hopeful budding relationships in songs such as “5 Years Later” and “2 Atoms in a Molecule” have dissolved and left the pain, disappointment and subsequent reckoning on full display as Fink comes to grips. Whether this is autobiographical or simply fiction drawn from scenes in real life, it’s sincere and staggeringly real. On “My Broken Heart”, Fink bemoans, “I thought I believed in love but I’ve never seen it through/Oh I didn’t marry the girl I loved/I saw my world cave in, felt like giving up…” We hear him later on “Blue Skies” with a melancholy, yet reassured look at the future, “This is the last song that I write while still in love with you/This is the last song that I write while you’re even on my mind…” Musically, the album mirrors the singer’s sentiments. It’s sparse and cautious, developing slowly in time with the protagonist’s own thoughts, and opens up like a flower halfway through culminating in a suite of orchestral pieces that changes the entire mood of the record for the last four songs. The First Days of Spring is a far cry from the catchy guitar-based pop of NATW’s first album in tone, but fortunately, not in sensibility.
This is hardly unique material, the themes within are as old as music itself, and one may be tempted to pass it over as another self-involved pity party. But don’t mistake its honesty for lack of aloofness. It’s sad and has a certain flair for the obvious, but this is the reality of the situation that we often forget amidst the eye-rollingly bad melodrama of most break-ups. At its core, it’s a miserable experience, and Noah and the Whale’s music absolutely nails this.
It’s only a matter of time and exposure before The First Days of Spring starts popping up in critics’ favorite break-up albums list. It’s got enough beauty to hold its own with Sea Change and enough truth to hold its own with Blood on the Tracks. This isn’t an artist’s pathetic attempt to make himself feel better, this is a spiritual enumeration; count yourselves lucky that the band’s shared it with the world.