Review Summary: Less of a zoo and more of a sombre, nostalgic photobook...
Newton Faulkner's seemingly effortless ability to create insanely catchy and memorable hooks, along with his distinctive percussion-on-guitar playing style, are the things that have driven his career up to this point. Having created three albums so far (2007's Hand Built by Robots
, 2009's Rebuilt by Humans
and 2012's Write it on Your Skin
) following mostly the same style, another distinctive feature began to emerge about the British singer-songwriter; that despite his seemingly cheerful demeanour and sunny melodies, he's a man with his share of emotional turmoils.
Initially, Studio Zoo
seems to follow in the footsteps of the previous albums; both album opener "Where to Start" and first single "Losing Ground" largely follow the beaten-down-lyrically-but-optimistic-musically approach. As one digs deeper into Studio Zoo
, however, it becomes apparent that in the short year since WIOYS, Newton Faulkner has become a changed man. The almost out-and-out depression that could be found on some older songs (see "Ageing Superhero", "Uncomfortably Slow" and "In the Morning") has been replaced with a state of sombre reflection; a state of quiet nostalgia.
Take, for example, "Treading Water" and "Lay Down". Both are unusually slow-paced, and deprived of Faulkner's usual distinctive hooks. This means that instead they have to rely on both his lyrics and vocal ability to stay interesting. Fortunately, the former are strong and unmitigated, and the latter is at its peak in his career thus far. Faulkner's voice is still a wonder, striding out with open arms amongst the seas of plucked and strummed strings. He uses his range to full effect, switching from a quiet, sombre low tone on the innovative "In My Head" to a beautiful, unfaltering falsetto on "At the Seams". His renowned guitar virtuosity, meanwhile, has largely been set aside in favour of a more calculated and less showmanship-ish approach that suits the largely downbeat nature of the songs; however, when he does decide to bring back his upbeat melodies and percussive skills, he proves he can still absolutely hit the right spot, such as on the intently uplifting "Plastic Hearts". On the astonishing album closer "Orange Skies", Faulkner exercises a new skill in seamlessly combining both aspects of his sound, merging one of the most addicting vocal melodies you'll hear this year with the sombre tone of the other songs on Studio Zoo
to create a riveting album standout.
Unfortunately, the problems with consistency that plagued Rebuilt by Humans
and Write it on Your Skin
have returned on Studio Zoo
, although in a much lesser capacity. "Just Outside" and "Don't Make Me Go There" are both weak filler tracks that could've (and should've) been discarded, in favour of both album consistency and a more manageable runtime, and neither prove to be particularly memorable or noteworthy after repeated listens. Outside these two tracks, however, everything on the album eventually reveals something to contribute; a catchy melody here, a clever lyrical phrase there, all with some incredible guitarwork on top; hell, even a completely different style on "In My Head", hitherto unexplored territory for Faulkner, with its atmospheric guitar backdrop and haunting layered vocals.
In conclusion, Faulkner may never again be able to reach the outstanding songwriting ability and consistency that his debut album showcased; but his lyrical, vocal and instrumental talents are just as good (if not better) than ever. More than anything, he proves that he is still a master at evoking, controlling and directing the emotions of his audience, and it is at this that he truly excels on Studio Zoo