I had high hopes for Heart of Nowhere, the fourth album from London’s Noah and the Whale, based on the cool orchestral sway of “Introduction” and even through some of “Heart of Nowhere.” These hopes would prove to be mostly unjustified by the time guest vocalist Anna Calvi joins in with some truly questionable Annie Lennox channeling for the song’s second half. And then Heart of Nowhere quickly ceases to deliver on the promise of string-backed chamber pop it starts with, instead opting for the dance rock slickness of a group like British Sea Power. This is a mistake, and it is made repeatedly – though inconsistently, at least – throughout Heart of Nowhere. For the most part, though, Noah and the Whale have traded in the poetic bombast and pastoral eagerness of Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down for a guitar rock sound that they are ill-equipped to handle.
“All Through the Night” sounds like a weird New Order cover, but the no less danceable “Lifetime” manages a fairly slick compromise between dance rock and baroque pop. “Lifetime”‘s fiercely new wave string intro is surprisingly fresh, and the song a pleasant little exodus into what I can safely say must be the best Lumineers song ever. It’s a legitimately solid effort that does its part in justifying Heart of Nowhere, and it’s also our first glimpse on the tracklist at the overt Springsteen/Knopfler influence on Charlie Fink’s vocals. Heart of Nowhere sometimes feels like an effort to live up to these stadium-sized acts, but mostly it seems like an exercise in distancing the Noah and the Whale brand from twee folk: by any means necessary.
The attempt is half-hearted, though not disastrous. Both “One More Night” and “There Will Come A Time” sound like Bruce Springsteen being channeled secondhand through Davey Jones. Fink simply does not have the vocal momentum to imitate The Boss, or even someone like Brandon Flowers – that “There Will Come A Time” sounds as goofy as a Haircut 100 cover of “Dancing in the Dark” doesn’t really help. Bizarrely, on earlier Noah and the Whale hits like “Shape of my Heart,” Fink’s vocals are more than a little interesting; he was certainly close to the top of the twee pop class. It just feels like all the fun and joy of those earlier songs has been washed out of Fink’s voice, stopping short the potential for tracks like “One More Night” and the Cars influenced “Silver And Gold.” Heart of Nowhere also has trouble committing to any one point of reference, letting Springsteen blend clumsily into Peter Hook and 70s soft rock.
“Still After All These Years” has some refreshing ideas, though they’re buried under weird tentacle grabs at antithetical sounds. But Heart of Nowhere is hardly a surprise: it’s exactly the kind of album that a band like Noah and the Whale is expected to make at this point in their career. Unsupervised, without a carefully laid theme, but with glimmers of the songcraft its makers are capable of. Noah and the Whale were always upbeat and friendly, and these aspects of the band remain; but an empty room, no matter how sunny, doesn’t usually do much to keep you in it.