On Stornoway (May 2010)

Stornoway are one of the best bands I’ve ever heard.

They make me feel like a teenager. I don’t just want to buy the album when it comes out. I want to pore over the lyrics, the artwork, the liner notes, and inhale the spirit of the songs. That hasn’t happened since my teens. Nor have I known even before I buy an album that I’m going to play it until I know every second of every song, every nook and cranny of the stereo field, every tootle of trumpet and snap of the snare. Not since then has a band made me want to wake up early on the day an album comes out to go buy it. I’m even thinking of going to an independent record shop just to get the free vinyl edition. I don’t even own a record player.

How have this band turned me into such a besotted fan?

Start with the melodies. They have a simple, clear-eyed, crystalline quality. They are beautiful without being fussy, catchy without being flat. Like all the best melodies, you feel that you know them after hearing them once, but you still want to hear them again after hearing them twenty times.

Then there are the lyrics. Much has been made of their folksy, rustic quality. But I think more central to their charm is the spirit or personality which shines through them. There is a lot of fear there, but a lot of wonder too. A sadness offset by stoicism.

Many of the songs have an almost formal symmetry to them. Over its three verses, ‘The Coldharbour Road’ gives us a trio of relationships – bird to ocean, town to volcano, and mind to memory – implicitly setting us a riddle: find the connection. One of their best songs, ‘Fuel Up’, follows a character at neat nine year intervals, curled up in the back of the car as a boy, driving to his girlfriend’s house as a teenager, and driving home as a man, as he grows from passenger to driver of his own life.

Always, the words and sentiments thread effortlessly through the melodies. Not just on a micro level of individual phrases; you will never hear a stray syllable pulling a melodic phrase out of shape, something much harder to pull off than it seems. But also on a macro level, in the wax and wane of whole song structures. Listen to how the rhythmic gusto of ‘Fuel Up’ recedes as the protagonist reflects on the lost years he’ll never get back, before he pulls himself together for the chorus, and tells himself to ‘fuel up’ for the rest of his life’s journey. Or how ‘I Saw You Blink’ stops and stands still when the singer stops walking to stand on top of the hill. They make this combination of micro and macro musical and lyrical symmetry look like baby steps.

Their adult steps are mesmerising. For me, the five-minute epic, ‘On The Rocks’ is nothing less than a complete sound mural, painting a detailed picture of a river flowing from source to shore.
It starts with a thin trickle of guitar – top few strings only – as the spring bubbles out of a brook. The first gentle curve of electric guitar, when it arrives, (0.39) is a stream winding its way gently downhill, just before the lyric “I’ll send my love downstream.” When it begins to rain, they don’t just sing “the rain came down back in December,” they paint it. That’s that patter of cymbal you can hear (1.32) and almost audibly liquid droplets of guitar (at 1.38). Beyond the “swirls and eddies,” something on the surface finds its way downstream, bumping against rocks of snare drum (2.18 and 2.21). And after the river, suddenly we are at sea, hearing waves of fuzzy guitar crashing against the rocks (2.36 and 2.43).

Is this all deliberate, or just my imagination? I don’t think it matters. The song works its magic. I can’t say how many times I have listened to it, but it still winds me with its ambition and beauty.

But it’s not just this that explains how Stornoway have turned me into such a fan.

It’s also because of what their songs and their success say directly to me. Not just because we have a mutual friend, or because I used to live in Cowley, the place they mention in ‘Zorbing’, or because they show that if the songs are good enough, geekiness will be no impediment in such an image-conscious business.

I think that at the heart of it is a delicious ambiguity, a symmetrical pull in two opposing directions.

On the one hand, I remember what it felt like to want to write songs for a living. Seeing them do it, I feel a kinship.

On the other hand, the sheer quality of their songs shows me just how much I still have to learn. When I hear the a song like ‘Fuel Up’, lyrics poised between melancholy and hope, the specific and the general, the picture and the message; every syllable laden with meaning but none overloaded, a melody which you can imagine being sung equally by fans at a festival this summer or a drunken crowd at a roadside inn one dark night two hundred years ago, it is a sweet and powerful reminder of how incredible music can be.

It is as if this wonderful band reached inside me, grabbed the deepest dreams and ambitions I had for my own songs, then gently set their own in front of me, as if to say “this, my friend, is how it should be done.”

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