Beyond its instalment in a career that has now seen five solo albums – though not quite enough to shake off the obligatory prefix of ‘Idlewild frontman’ – Roddy Woomble’s latest arrives in the dread canon of experimental lockdown releases, however weary and unbidden its entry. Recorded last year in Dundee and produced by bandmate and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Wasylyk, the record’s billing as both “ambient, meditative soundtrack” and “Dystopian pop” goes some way to foreshadowing how rarely ‘Lo! Soul’ remains on either path.
Perhaps it’s a reductive reading, but the album frequently simmers with an energy that sways between claustrophobia and a yearning for the world beyond. It’s there in the basic drum machine pattern that kicks in on ‘Return to Disappear’, an immediate draw into the sonic palettes of Yo La Tengo or Beach House. It’s there in the spoken word outro to ‘As If It Did Not Happen’, which finds the protagonist in nostalgic mood as they attempt to “calculate the chances of returning back to childhood”.
That the record partially originated with Woomble reading his poems over electronic music makes sense, though the results are mixed. Some of it scans as little more than clattering alliteration masquerading as profundity, as on ‘Atlantic Photography’: “Constellations are constantly in motion, into nothingness, dissolving into the day, drowned… I have seen and I’ve heard signals and secrets.” The lo-fi confessional style of tracks like ‘Secret Show’ – delivered in the kind of half-sung, half-spoken drawl that, were Woomble twenty-five years younger and privately educated, would surely earn him a 2021 album of the year nod – gets a little staid after a while.
It’s the clear-throated piano balladry that elevates ‘Lo! Soul’ to something occasionally divine. ‘People Move On’ is glorious, reminiscent of Stephin Merrit at his bittersweet best, and while a few jumbled metaphors slip through (“people will always be at the heart of every helping hand”), it’s hard to remain too steely on Woomble’s lyricism when the music and sentiment unite this beautifully. Similarly, both the title track and ‘Dead of the Moon’ showcase just how lush and tender his songwriting remains, and deserve to be remembered alongside his finest work.
If comparisons to the likes of Merritt feel unhelpful, it’s not least because the listener finds themself longing for a scattering of proper nouns, for some ballast of narrative detail to galvanise the airy pontificating about galaxies and beaches. Woomble may well have a brilliant album of ambient poetry in him; this isn’t it, though there are sufficient flashes of his extraordinary talent to make it worthy of repeat listens, whatever the world around us looks like when we next return.
Words: Matthew Neale
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