Last Days: The Safety of the North

In his use of a “script-based” narrative, Graham Richardson brings an inspired conceptual approach to his third Last Days full-length, The Safety of the North. Each of the fifteen tracks represents a separate scene in a larger story that's about the relocation of “Alice” and her parents to a remote northern land. Rejecting city life, the family longs for a simpler lifestyle, one filled with clean air, natural surroundings, and safety. With the tracks also scored to reflect the varying emotional states of the characters and the settings they inhabit, it hardly surprises that the album encompasses a broad stylistic range yet the story conceit—in formal terms, Alice 's story is a classic bildungsroman, though one of narrow temporal scope—helps bridge the disc's settings. In short, hanging the tracks on a narrative clothesline turns out to be a clever move as it brings continuity where it might be lacking on sonic grounds, and Richardson's decision to include vocals and speaking voices (Clemmie Law, Jodie Davis, Neamh Rose Breen, Fabiola Sanchez) is also wise, given how much such elements enhance the material. Song titles make the story easy to navigate: “Life Support” suggests that the death of Alice 's father is imminent, something the later title “The Fields Remember My Father” appears to confirm. After despairing over the impermanence of life, the young protagonist recovers and looks with hope upon the days to come (“Onwards”).

There are some beautiful pieces on the album. With its paired guitar motif and metronomic bass line, “The City Failed” makes for a perfect opener, its steady tempo and ponderous mood setting an elegant stage for the story's unfolding. When sounds of thunder and rain and the girl's speaking voice (“We'll be there soon, all of us, in the safety of the north”) appear, it's easy to visualize the family driving through a remote forest as it makes its way towards its new home in the rural north. Immediately following, “May Your Days Be Gold” adds a lovely vocal from Familiar Trees' Sanchez (“Thinking of what lies ahead…”) to a delicate “folktronic” base of acoustic guitar and piano. The album is filled with evocative instrumentals and elegiac settings that draw upon shoegaze, ambient, and post-rock (e.g., “Missing Photos,” “You Are Stars”). “New House” exudes the wonder of discovery and surprise a child experiences entering a home for the first time, while “This Is Not an Ending” and “Nothing Stays the Same, Nothing Ever Ends” are quintessential Last Days tracks: stirring meditations of electronic tones, piano, and strings augmented by corroded waves of guitar-generated noise. Field recordings effectively contextualize the material too: cawing crows and the crunch of footsteps transport the listener into the setting during “The Fields Remember My Father,” and Alice is heard riding her bicycle and ringing its bell during “Blue and White Flowers,” making it easy to imagine her exploring the countryside while church bells toll in the distance and birds chirp around her. Three albums into his Last Days project, Richardson maintains the high standard set by the first installments with this rich third. The sixty-five-minute collection merges field recordings, vocal elements, acoustic instruments, and electronics into a narrative whole that's never less than engaging and often powerfully affecting in its humanistic character.

April 2009