Pop musicians have many aspirations, but one that is often hardest to fulfil is to be taken seriously. Bill Ryder-Jones has taken no chances: he’s based his debut solo album on Italo Calvino’s 1979 post-modern, metafictional novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Those adjectives will be enough to send shudders down the spines of many fans of Ryder-Jones’ previous band, The Coral – he left after their fifth album in 2008 – and certainly they’re unlikely to find any of the psychedelia that characterises the Liverpool band’s work here. But, if they can put to one side the concept – which, in truth, is superfluous to the record’s success – they’ll find plenty of other enticing ingredients on this quasi-soundtrack instead.
Having impressed with string arrangements for his former band’s Roots & Echoes album, Ryder-Jones places the Liverpool Philharmonic centre stage for many of these numbers. The opening title-track is a romantic, brooding tear-jerker pitched halfway between Ennio Morricone and Francis Lai – two composers whose work haunts this entire recording – and is intended to convey images of small-town Italian life; later, By the Church of Apollonia begins sparse and threatening, cellos, percussion and a lone female voice evoking images of defeated soldiers tramping through war-torn fields. Some Absolute End (The End) brings more rock-friendly instrumentation into play, with guitars strummed alongside the piano, occupying the cinematic territory of Calexico had they formed in the Wirral rather than Tucson; and Enlace grows from a two-note piano riff into a grand, emotive piece of orchestral rock, though it is rather spoiled by a Santana-esque guitar coda (that he actually admitted to The Guardian he wished he’d edited out).
It’s not all about blockbuster, if tasteful, big screen music-for-a-film-that-hasn’t-been-made. Leaning (Star of Sweden) is a moving meditation, a solo piano slowly joined by strings before Ryder-Jones himself sings, albeit in muted tones, the lyrics buried enigmatically in the mix. Le Grande Désordre, meanwhile, is an acoustic lament, guitar strings scratched in its intimacy before chamber strings swell out the sound. These songs are perhaps initially lost amidst the grandiose arrangements elsewhere but, after a while, they start to play a significant role in adding texture and colour to a concept that, against the odds, proves creatively fruitful in allowing Ryder-Jones to develop his genuinely impressive talent.
Novelist David Mitchell once said that Calvino’s book is "breathtakingly inventive" – but only the first time you read it. Ryder-Jones has not only pulled off the unusual feat of writing a soundtrack for a complex and experimental novel, complementing the book’s allure handsomely. He’s also, with its sentiment and inventiveness, made it worthy of repeated plays. He’s definitely worth taking seriously.