Review Summary: Faulkner explores his electro-acoustic world a little further, with imperfect but nonetheless solid results.
Strong debut albums serve as both a blessing and a curse. For Newton Faulkner, 2007’s Hand Built by Robots
launched the free-spirited, dreadlocked singer/songwriter as one of the year’s most unlikely stars – "Dream Catch Me" super-glued itself to the charts, whilst songs like "Uncomfortably Slow", "I Need Something" and his gorgeous rendition of Massive Attack’s "Teardrop" displayed his versatility and strength as a musician. At the same time, however, there was always that niggling, underlying feeling that when it came time for Faulkner to create the sequel to this phenomenal record, perhaps there would be too much pressure to better its predecessor. Maybe the inspiration would run dry. Who knows"
It’s with this notion in mind that one can look at Rebuilt By Humans
in two perspectives. As a follow-up to Hand Built, the album falls slightly short of equaling the record. Faulkner’s infamous “interludes” make their gratuitous return, fattening out the record but serving little purpose in doing so. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-esque “She’s Got the Time” comes back, as well, under the name “She’s Got the Time 2” – apparently, she still has the time; and yes, she still won’t give it to him. It’s not just the excess that flaws Rebuilt
– it’s aspects of the overall sound, as well. For one thing, there seems to be a lot more going on for the bulk of this record – the production, whilst first class, has raised up the elements of the songs that formerly resided beneath Faulkner’s vocals and guitar playing. String arrangements, electronic beats and whirring synthesizer, amongst other things, have begun to surround – and occasionally engulf – the core of the songs themselves. “Won’t Let Go” and “So Much”, for instance, sounds like remixes of Newton’s songs, or even a side project; not an original composition. It’s certainly interesting, and it’s rarely “bad”, per se, but at the same time it comes across a little uncomfortable.
Of course, one can also look at the album as a separate entity, without the shadow of Hand Built looming. It’s when one shifts into this viewpoint that things become brighter. The furthered layering of instrumentation can be seen as experimentation – it doesn’t always pay off, given; but there are certainly parts of a few songs that perhaps would not have worked with Faulkner on his lonesome – the funky horn section and John Mayer-esque electric guitar on “Lipstick Jungle” a great example of this. At the very least, his ambition can’t be questioned – he’s still quizzical about the world around him and those closest to him, remaining optimistic about what comes next. “Been Thinking About It”, as the title suggests, supports his curious-onlooker persona as he envisions his love life (“Why the hell are we wasting our time"/Are you too afraid to cross that line"”), his mortality (“If this was to end right now/I’d go with a grateful smile”) and the driving motivation behind the human reliance on the 9-to-5 lifestyle (“You say you hate it/But it makes ends meet”). It’s smart, touching and delicately beautiful – another display of the capabilities of this man as a musician.
Faulkner remains one of the most gifted guitarists in popular music, using his entire instrument to its full potential as much as possible. Observe his great use of both open turning and of pitch harmonics in lead single “If This Is It”, strumming through simple but very effective chord patterns. His bluesy lick that stomps through the verses of “Badman” also proves to be infectious, as he waxes lyrical about cities, rivers, fields, trees and everything else in-between. There may be less emphasis on his abilities as a guitarist, but there are still moments where it’s as bold as ever on Rebuilt
The album ends with one of the defining moments of Faulkner’s career – a solo acoustic number entitled “I’m Not Giving Up Yet”. A slow, heartstring-pulling ballad, Newton takes a view of humanity as just another grain of sand on a miles-long beach. He knows all too well of the imperfections of his fellow man, but fails to believe that all is lost. “We’re capable of so much more/Than the statistics on the news”, he cries out over staggering acoustic melody, before reaching to the highest pitch he has ever sung and practically weeping the sage words “Hold on to any truth you find”. This is an intimate, brilliantly composed song that thrives in its simplistic beauty. Nothing else but a man, his guitar and a lot on his mind.
Ultimately, one can sum up Rebuilt by Humans
with all but milliseconds of sound grabs from the album. At the end of track two, “Badman”, we hear the sound of a small, brief applause. At the end of “I’m Not Giving Up Yet”, a sample of a loud, rapturous applause can be heard. You might be politely clapping for awhile on your first few listens to Rebuilt
, but rest assured that Faulkner will have you cheering by the end. A flawed, but ultimately lovable sophomore.