Review Summary: Each of us, we're going in. Even if we don't how to swim...
Album packaging is bit of a crap shoot. Sometimes you get bare bones, sometimes you get lyrics, sometimes you get cryptic liner notes, but in the case of Douglas Dare's debut album, you get something more informative to his creative process: a booklet of poems. Provided no doubt to show the evolution of this fledging artist, it gives the listener an abstract idea of how Dare operates. Furthermore, the album cover of a man overlooking a rocky shore fully encapsulates the themes at work in Whelm, as the passage of time, lost love, nature, and water weave and flow together with stately piano progressions, unassuming synth washes, and electronic blips to create a work of somber beauty.
Somber and shadowy though it may be, you never get the feeling of melodrama or overwrought feelings throughout. Dare's voice undoubtedly has garnered him comparisons to fellow Londoner James Blake and violin loop maestros Owen Pallett and Andrew Bird, but in the context of the songs, that proves to be a good thing. Dare's voice can morph from a wisp to full-bodied and back again, demonstrating his ability to blend in as well as to stand out. Given its versatility, it was wise to keep Dare's voice dominant in the mix. It provides a ghastly quality to the production, as percussive beats flicker in and out while unassuming synths flow and wash around Dare but rarely envelop.
Indeed, producer / percussion player Fabian Prynn's production choices make it sound as if the percussion and synths are filtered through a deep sea tunnel. Opener Clockwork begins with a heavily treated synth reminiscent of a whale calling before Dare’s vocal and piano lines arrive and develop. There’s a resigned bend to the song, with industrial drum taps and pulses accenting the anxious and tense atmosphere of the piano and Dare’s fatalistic but engrossing view on Time: “Tied to them like a noose/ Oh memories they cannot choose…/Measure time but it will move/ Hold it close but it won’t prove anything”. This leads into Nile, a downtempo number with funereal trumpets blending seamlessly with synth drones to bolster Dare’s vocal to his lost love, “ I’d sail down the River Nile/ Just to keep you alive and well”, as his vocal is carried away like a bottle on the waves.
Yet Dare and Prynn both know when to fill the space of a song and when let a composition speak for itself. The duo indulges a bit on Unrest, which begins with synth squelches that clash with Dare’s tender vocal before the song modestly blossoms open with piano arpeggios and insistent cymbal touches that lends the chorus a bit of a jazz-like quality. On the other hand, the unfussy Caroline serves to ground the album with just Dare, the piano, and the fading of love and memory: “And I used to see every line that crossed your face/ but now the lines are lost.” It’s a simple yet hauntingly evocative image, one that best captures the beauty and economy of Dare’s lyrics. Dare’s marriage of electronics and classic piano is fully realized on Swim, where synths and swelling piano chords ebb and flow against each other, until the last minute unveils a tempest of lightning-bolt percussion and ominous synths that threaten to overwhelm the vocal line before the maelstrom subsides into London’s Rose, the stately closer to the album.
One can hope that Dare’s fan base will grow with each successive release. Despite the comparisons to Blake and other contemporaries, Dare has the chops and instincts to avoid being pigeon-holed as a carbon copy. Naturally, the album’s thick cloud of melancholy provides few glimpses of hope or optimism, which may be too much for some listeners. But for those who buy into the idea of dignified piano ballads rendered modern, Whelm hits the bittersweet spot.