Friday, 24 June 2011

Nerina Pallot - Year Of The Wolf

For her fourth album, ‘Year of the Wolf’ released this last month, Nerina Pallot has been welcomed back into the fold by Polydor (who dropped her after her debut) and has taken the brave step of enlisting the production talents of Bernard Butler, he who guided Duffy to fame and fortune on the back of the retro-sounding ‘Rockferry’.  Presumably this is an attempt to move up to the big league after three albums on the sidelines. Having listening to YOTW several times now, I am still a little undecided as to whether this was a good move or not.  There is certainly a retro feel to the whole project – even the cover depicts her wearing what looks like one of Carly Simon’s hats, circa 1972.

Inevitably, Butler’s fingerprints are everywhere and never more so than the rather heavy-handed string arrangements and aggressive guitar figures which attend some songs, but I can’t decide whether this has enhanced Nerina’s own personality – so prevalent on her previous outing, ‘The Graduate’ – or submerged it in unnecessary production.  Either way, I am now getting more used to the overall sound and feel of the album and finding that it is not quite as un-nerving as I thought.  But has she sacrificed her own essence for Polydor’s vision of success?

Having become a mother in late 2010 has clearly modified Nerina’s outlook and the lyrical content of the songs has taken on a more worldly wise tenor but still retains her trademark literacy.  The songs range from the upbeat pop of ‘Put Your Hands Up’ (a real tilt at the charts, I feel) to tender ballads such as ‘If I Lost You Now’ but they all have a more polished demeanour about them than on previous albums.  It is here that I am having trouble as the polishing has taken off the patina of Nerina’s great strength – her ability to communicate emotion.  There are undoubtedly great tunes on this album and there is humour but the raw emotion she is capable of is somehow diluted by the production.

But as I write this and the album plays, there, nestling right at the end of the album is the killer song, ‘History Boys’.  This simple piano ballad tells of mothers awaiting the return of their dead soldier sons in the streets of the military town of Wootton Bassett in SW England and it is heart-breaking.  Sung at the top of Nerina’s vocal range, the melody glides over a piano and string waltz (rather than a military march) perhaps to indicate the strength of love over war?   The song was composed whilst Nerina was pregnant and the poignancy of the lines in the second verse are almost too much to bear.  She has admitted that this song is very difficult for her to sing as her anger and sadness spill over:
One day I'll have a child of my own
How will I tell him, oh
This world, this world it is a good place?
How will I hide the fear from my face?
Suddenly my qualms about the rest of the album pale into insignificance as ‘History Boys’ plays out and I have a tear in my eye, I realise that this could be Pallot’s finest moment, worth the price of the album on its own.

Here is an even better version with just voice and piano.  Without any distracting production it is quite devastating and is what Nerina Pallot does best.

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