The Dawdler is songwriter John Edgar from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. You may be familiar with his name from bands such as Okay Champ, EAT FAST and Nately’s Whore Kid Sister. If so, you may be expecting this album to be a heavy affair. You would be wrong.
Keith in Ballachulish is the complete contrast to his other work. It’s a work of gentle meandering. A swaying series of beautiful portraits. Characters drawn so vividly you cannot help but imagine their faces, their voices and lives.
The album opens with ‘Around Eve’. His mournful voice yearns for escape from his lonely lifestyle. “Living alone with a siamese cat. Going to bed with a psychopath. Spilling your guts to a misanthropic GP” he sings sounding as though he hates every word. Yet you cannot help but enter into the slow dance that this album is. As album openers go, this one does its job, and then some.
This moves us into the title track. The Keith in question is a close neighbour of Edgars. This song is literally a story he told about a baby deer eating the flowers from his wifes grave. Ballachulish, in case you are wondering, is on the west coast of Scotland about two hours drive north from Glasgow. Clocking in at just under 2 minutes this song packs in so much emotion into its short run time.
We continue the slow dance into ‘Flickering Out’. I love how the bass and guitar weave around each other on this one. It feels like they are chasing each other but never seem to be able to catch up. Edgars vocal is the cement holding it all together. When the bass part changes to a piano line at the end you just marvel at his compositional skills.
‘Pete’ leads us into the next beat of the slow dance. This is a deftly spun tale of a man and his daughter driving when they have a tragic accident. It’s unclear to the listener if Pete and his daughter survive, making the song all the more powerful. You really feel like you are in the car on a windy country road.
On ‘Feast on The Calm’ we start to hear Edgars sonic breadth. The ambient swells leading to the fuzzed-out guitar and static wash that concludes this track are built so subtly that it’s a complete surprise when the track suddenly explodes.
‘Donald’ is a track about a missing ginger tomcat delivered with a middle eastern vibe about it. Beautifully ambient strings (might be an organ of some kind) conclude the track and Side A with a flourish.
Side B opens with ‘Collingwood by the Sea’. Fans of Radiohead will adore this song with its ‘Street Spirit (fade out)’ style refrain. It also begins a run of three stunning songs that culminates in one of the finest pieces of writing I have heard in a long time. More on that in a moment.
The gentle sway of ‘Mr Sot’ leads us back into the ebb and flow of the slow dance. When Edgars voice soars in the chorus I challenge anyone not to be moved. The tale of a relationship breaking down. ‘I’m tired of Mrs Sot and I’m tired of love’ sounds like such a heart-breaking line but it’s delivered with such belief and in a melody couched in a kind of truncated joy. You just can’t help but smile.
Now we reach ‘Sylvie’. I have wrestled with how I would describe this track to you. I have a list of hyperbole as long as your arm so I’ll try and be succinct. This is a song so full of hope, so anthemic, so utterly giving of itself you cannot help but wish it lasted for twice as long. ‘Sylvie don’t be shy, we were born to sleep’ it begins. ‘Put your fears with mine. Give the demons hell, bloody tooth and nail’ he sings and you cannot help but get swept up in the wave of empowering positivity exuding from your speakers. The sweeping strings and warbling electronic touches lift this song to another level. Have a listen here to see what I mean.
This leads us into the eerie and atmospheric ‘Jimmy & Steve ‘94’. Over a reverby wash and plucked bass he leads us through a track that Thom Yorke would kill for. This is up there with anything on A Moon Shaped Pool and that is one of my all-time favourite albums. Would Thom Yorke be so daring to write about a snooker match?
We move in to darker, grittier tones for ‘Soup for One’ a song that threatens to explode from the opening chords. With a menacing bassline akin to recent volcanic sounding Sigur Ros tracks from Kveikur and stuttering and pulsing guitar this is seriously heavy compared to what precedes it. Does it feel out of place though? No. It feels perfectly right as we approach the end of the album to have a track this adventurous and bold, yet sung with all the fragility we are used to from the previous songs.
The album closes with the hushed ‘Crows Come Home’. The slow dance is over and we are treated to a voice and keyboard led ballad with what feels like feedback of all the rest of the songs ebbing away trying to be heard in the background. And then, it’s over.
A bold and uncompromising album of quite stunning fragility and nuance. The sheer creativity on display fills me with hope that there are still great songwriters out there. In John Edgar we have a true artist with a clear vison fulfilled. The Dawdler is here to stay.
Keith in Ballachulish is out now and available on LP via Bandcamp and downloadable from all your usual sites.