Review Summary: One of the great sublime records of the decade, a triumph of heartache and longing that is so intensely personal, its message becomes universal.
New Zealand collective the Veils have always been a front, a smokescreen for the roiling mess of emotions that make up singer/lyricist Finn Andrews and his nakedly emotional, often abrasive tales. He’s the kind of obsessive frontman who writes all the songs, directs everyone how to play, and truly becomes the soul of the band; it should come as no surprise, then, that Nux Vomica, the Veils’ sophomore effort, features an entirely new cast of backing musicians than their debut did. Perhaps even more importantly, it features Andrews (son of Barry Andrews of ‘80s power-popsters XTC) doing what he does best: emoting exactly what he feels, as dramatically and as powerfully as possible. One would think all this single-minded input would lead the Veils’ to become a bit stale. On the contrary, however, Nux Vomica is Andrews’ shining achievement, a tightly focused, poetic work that establishes Andrews’ as a gifted songwriter in his own right and perhaps one of the most impassioned performers in rock today.
With The Runaway Found, the Veils seemed too attuned to major label interests, writing songs that yearned for radio airplay but in the process tended to suffocate Andrews’ outsized ego and combustible personality. It’s immediate right from the opening howl of “Not Yet,” however, that Andrews isn’t going to restrain himself this go around. A Western-tinged rollercoaster of sliding guitars and rollicking drums led on by Andrews’ fiery vocals, it’s an appropriate opening thesis for Nux Vomica, telling the kind of literate story and twisted metaphors that Andrews long ago mastered with wild instrumental fervor. Andrews has never been one to be subtle (“Not Yet,” after all, could either be read as a struggle with indecisiveness or the tale of a young boy discovering sexuality via his mother), and his extravagant vocal stylings make that readily apparent.
The Veils’ have often been compared to the Bad Seeds, both for their musical approach and lyrical attitude, and Andrews’ vocals even call to mind Nick Cave, with a little bit of young, intelligible Tom Waits thrown in for good measure. It’s a potent if sometime caustic combination, and it makes for a number of songs that would fit right at home on the alternative end of the FM dial: the Celtic hue of “Calliope!,” where arching strings and lively drums highlight one of the band’s most straightforward love songs, and the gender-flipped confessional of “Advice for Young Mothers To Be,” full of pleasant “oohs-aahs,” female backing vocals, and tragic lyrics that belie the tone, are the most obvious ones.
But it’s when Andrews lets it all hang out, musically and vocally, that the Veils shine brightest. “Jesus For The Jugular” is that type of song, the kind of outright blues that would make the White Stripes proud. Andrews enunciates every word carefully, with the vehemence of a revivalist preacher and the fury of the damned, and the band’s hard-hitting stomp is all fire and brimstone. The title track is even more of a revelation, a slow burn of staccato drum rolls, threatening bass, and occasional jabs of guitar noise framing Andrews’ long and increasingly chaotic questions: “Am I living wrong" / Do you see a long road with no one on it / and the right of men that you learnt only to forget / you see my sad wife and my high margin of profit / but you don’t care at all.” It’s a crisis of faith that only propels itself along with Andrews’ erratic temper and the growing fever of the band which bubbles below the surface, finally exploding as Andrews screams “I’ll see you all / and I’ll raise you” and then collapsing in on itself with the last, haunting series of lines, where Andrews cautions “honey, it ain’t hard to loose your grip in the midst of all of this / but it ain’t far to fall / it’s not far at all.” It’s a masterful exercise in tension and release, and a microcosm of the record as a whole.
Nux Vomica is a difficult record to pin down, going as it does from ‘60s-pop songs to Jeff Buckley-esque ballads to tough-as-nails, blues-influenced rock ‘n roll, but what keeps the ship steady remains Andrews’ consistently brilliant performances, from the wretched anguish of “Not Yet” all the way through to the melancholy “House Where We All Live.” It’s an album that succeeds largely based on something that is often so hard to catch, something that many artists search in vain for throughout their careers: the very heart of a emotion or feeling, encapsulated perfectly and without editing into a song. It’s doubtful that an individual as volatile as Finn Andrews will ever release a record that so accurately transcribes his feelings and stories as well as Nux Vomica does. But even if he never comes close, the Veils have still left us with one of the great sublime records of the decade, a triumph of heartache and longing that is so intensely personal, its message becomes universal.