Without receiving much publicity, Turin Brakes have steadily built up an impressive fanbase on the base of this remarkably assured debut album. This is a collection of shimmeringly beautiful songs, all drenched in the glorious emotion of modern life.
What sets this band apart from the others that they were initially lumped in with is their startlingly acute emotional touch - the ability to find exactly the right words, and at exactly the right time, so as to send a shiver down anyone's spine.
Opener Feeling Oblivion is a summery, gentle piece of guitar-pop, quietly embracing a sense of escapism ("If things get real, promise to take me somewhere else"). The breakthrough single Underdog (Save Me) follows, probably the most instant song on the album thanks to punchy guitar work and a wonderful chorus (and one of the most brilliant acoustic guitar solos ever). Even when the lyrics become oblique on this album, as they frequently do, Olly Knight's sensational vocals make them vibrate with feeling.
Future Boy is a standout, with a soft, lush soundscape unfolding into the distance. Even though it's unclear what it's all about (references to STDs, monkeys, information saturation and time travel all melt into each other), it's almost unbearably poignant, resonating with the power and sadness of lost dreams and friendships, especially when Knights sings, "Oh, s***, I'm gonna miss my friends," and the writhing, passionate final chorus is amazing.
The Door is all dry, twangy guitars and dark, haunted lyrics ("I watch the boiling sea meet the open sky, but my soul feels like it's ice"), and the desertscape artwork captures it well.
Another superb standout is State Of Things, a heartbroken journey through a relationship at breaking-point. It features one of the best lyrics on the album, encapsulating perfectly the emotional exhaustion ("All things must end, yeah, but I can see my fate in your eyes"), and the strange bounce of the chorus only serves to increase its power.
Turin Brakes capture the highs and lows of city life with consummate ease, and the album is full of such sound effects; a telephone ringing at the start of the stark, sad By TV Light, a page turning, and then a door slamming, at the end of Mind Over Money.
Slack, the only song to use electric guitar extensively, is the angry, scruffy cousin of Starsailor's Good Souls, and contrasts sharply, but well, with the rest of the album.
It's not a perfect album (very few are, least of all debuts); Emergency 72 lacks the fire or intensity of the other songs, and Starship, completely untypically of this band, is melodically and emotionally bland (I've tried, and failed, to wring a drop of meaning out of the lyrics). But any doubts about Turin Brakes' quality should be blown away by the last three songs. The Road dreams of distant, picturesque highways, but returns to the pretty suburbian summertime for its chorus ("In the garden, where the evening sky lights up my room"). Again, the guitar work is lovely, and the effect of the sweet strings (here, and on Feeling Oblivion) cannot be overestimated.
Mind Over Money is led in and out by imposing piano chords, and the lyrics move closer and closer to Michael Stipe's stream of consciousness ("Internal combustion, can that really happen?"). The "grand scheming sky" referred to in the lyrics reflects Turin Brakes' musical visions; sweeping, widescreen and full-colour.
But it's the title track and closer, The Optimist, which epitomises the album best. Gently plucked guitars and possibly the loveliest melody on the album are fused with lyrics that bring out the full irony of the song's title. Knights sings with deceptive innocence, especially when his lyrics reflect on "cracked skulls with a creepy mind inside", and the chorus brings the album to a suitably downbeat end, "There's no escape, lonely planet."
This is an album feverish with emotion, simultaneously sweet and heartbreaking, an album which sounds perfect in the half-light of the hours between day and night. It's an album of fantastic visions juxtaposed with the equally powerful realities of life - the intensity of relationships and the strange, dark beauty of the world we live in.