As another of those journalistic preambles to saying this is a good record, you should immediately give this a listen – and this Nick Craft record is a good’un and you should definitely give it a listen - this may not be a big secret to anyone who can read, but there’s a pernicious, theoretically unpopular, yet hard to kill formula in music writing.
Just as it is mandated that if a woman sings personal songs over folk/popish, sometimes rhythmic sounds, someone will say Joni Mitchell, even if there isn’t a connection beyond ownership of an acoustic, if there’s a male singer/songwriter playing picked-acoustic guitar and singing sad songs he’ll be compared with Nick Drake even if he only ever once writes a melody worth bottling.
Or maybe John Martyn if he is sturdier, or the critic has heard more than Pink Moon (and Kate Bush if the critic has enjoyed some unfettered pop indulgence in the past), while if he doesn’t have any melodies or interest but still sounds sad and good blokey he’ll probably not only be compared with Jack Johnson, he will actually be Jack Johnson.
If such a singer/songwriter (male) plays slower still in a folk-meets-pop-meets-country style, with a blend of wry insight into the human condition and a lugubrious delivery for a voice that isn’t perfect and isn’t trying to be, well it’s got to be a Leonard Cohen reference.
None of these are bad comparisons of course, in as much as being compared to some greats is better than being compared to, let’s think, Vance Joy for example. Though of course if Cohen et al are the measuring stick the chances are you’ll be said to, inevitably, fall short of that high standard.
So here’s the problem: I’d rather not go the clichés but gee whiz Australian Nick Craft doesn’t half sound like Leonard Cohen on this album. And John Martyn. The Cohen we know from before he was introduced to click tracks and Casios, discos and deranged producers. The Martyn we know from before the alcohol and bitterness took over. No, I’m not saying he’s as good as them – though he probably treats women better than the Englishman, which is no small saving grace – only that he’s playing in the same sandpit.
The acoustic guitar is the lead, the dominant, sometimes the only instrument. It is picked and strummed with low impact and showiness, and asks that you lean in to hear it, not lean back to take it in. The voice is hushed when it’s not talking softly, stepping out lightly with little fractures in its surface, and always conversational rather than overtly singing.
It’s a technique which grows close to overfamiliar by the time you get to the final song, Circle Of The Sun, but that point arrives 35 minutes in so that’s no big problem.
Backing female voices work as part counterpoint, part Greek chorus and part softening, their relative purity not a rebuke but a compliment. I could have had more of them actually. And beneath it all are deployed subtle additions of cello or viola, celeste or upright bass, and piano, definitely as complements not challenges.
The arrangements and production by Martin Craft (not only Nick’s brother and fellow member in the NSW South Coast band of yore, Sidewinder, but maker of excellent ‘70s pop-styled albums of his own) all work to keep attention on the songs rather than the mechanics or process. Though the Bach ostinato in Leaves is not hiding its light under a bushel and the occasional line – a reference to la paloma blanca for example – slip in some sly nods.
Tonally, this is an album where lovers may be “looking for the heartache before the first kiss has been given”, where a man may ask “what did I know about love?”, and where to declare that to have been standing “among the ruins” need not be the worst result if you find yourself “between gods above and gods below”.
That is, tragedy isn’t the calling card, and in No Silver Lining he even puts an argument for not taking the grim as a given, but a seam of at the very least wistfulness and sometimes outright sadness runs through the ground of most songs. The world is observed without judgement and it’s clear that relationships aren’t automatically doomed (well, not automatically) but the planet may have a time limit; people are flawed but there is plenty to redeem them if we choose wisely; and if you have to divide the world you could settle for “the ones that leave and the ones that get left behind”.
One might also talk about the people who choose their company poorly, and those who choose wisely. Musically, Nick Craft has chosen well.