At the same time that his high school friend was busy culling one of the year’s most polarizing albums, John Nolan worked quietly in his Lawrence, KS home penning the nine songs that would make up his solo debut Height. The creative force in the piano-based Straylight Run and the man touted as being the genius behind the seminal emo classic Tell All Your Friends, Nolan is well-revered across the country for what many like to think is his Midas touch. So it comes with bated breath and months of anticipation that Height is now released to the world.
Beginning with album opener “Til It’s Done to Death,” the disc begins in a quirky, semi-splashy fashion. What begins as an acoustic number turns swiftly into a dancy, catchy, lo-fi singalong. While the verses are somewhat muddled, the chorus is a surefire crowd-pleaser. Utilizing keys and synth, “Til Its Done to Death,” has a decidedly urban feel. That is to say this sounds like a song written in a London flat, and not the barren plains of Kansas. He continues with “I Don’t Believe You” which has one hand dipped in electronica and another in intimate acoustic pop. The song begins with a supple acoustic guitar before diving headfirst into what is ostensibly a demonstration in dance hall dizziness. Pulsating with a whir of beats, synths and samples, “I Don’t Believe You,” is musically strong, but as an orchestration manages to suffocate the lyrical narrative, resulting in a memorable, melodic and slightly muddled exercise. As expected, the lyrics are terrific, but that kind of thing is always expected from him.
”Screaming Into the Wind” is one of the album’s high water marks and a true pinnacle. Anchored by a whirring organ, the foray features syncopated beats, a pronounced bass and a heavy funk vibe. For a song about the Midwest, it’s decidedly non-Midwestern. Rhythmic and dense, it feels more Mancurian than Omahan. The song’s best assets are its biting lyrics, as the fabricated, machinated and electric noises get a bit wearing in the last 30 seconds. For a song about the Midwest one would hope the track would boast an organic or earthy sentiment, and that seems to be farthest from Nolan’s mind. The album dips for the first time on “It Takes a Long Time.” Much like “I Don’t Believe You,” the song is not a lyrical flop, but instead a sonic sendup that’s mediocre and somewhat pedestrian.
That the disc takes three songs before its first disappointment is a credit to Nolan, but the uncomplicated guitar lines and average verses are something that truly stand out. Nolan is definitely adept at delivering first-rate vocals every time out (i.e. Straylight Run’s self-titled) but for some reason he doesn’t rise to the task on “It Takes a Long Time.” “Here I Am” starts off promising but tapers off in the end before yielding to another of the album’s standouts, “Not to Let Go.” Featuring twinkling chimes, airy xylophones, and fragile vocals, the song is pretty and even has a decided carousel vibe that is at times circusy. It’s most definitely one of the album’s better songs and credit goes to Mike Sapone for his production work here, which seems to harness and anchor the arrangement.
For reasons unknown, Nolan chooses to tackle the 1996 single “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand.” Boasting heavy, semi-dark piano, the cover is eerie, haunting, and more atmospheric and more nuanced than the original. In all honesty, this is as good a cover as any that has been released this year. Faithful to the original while still going for something a little different. But, why exactly he chose to rework the song is truly quite puzzling. Yes the lyrics are insightful and the vibe is intriguing, but something like this from a man that chose to revamp the highly revered Bob Dylan anti-war anthem “With God On Our Side?”
The disc ends with the snarky “I Won’t Ever Be There,” and the hopeful “Keep Calm And Carry On.” The former is wintry and chilly, with an atmospheric backdrop and empathetic vocals that hiss and snarl on the chorus. Accompanied by a dose of layers, the song evokes a nightscape, and its swelling chorus sounds sinister and angry. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” on the other hand is more amiable and comforting, a song that seems to focus more on solace and relaxation. It’s a nice way to end an album, but it isn’t exactly one of the album’s finer moments either.
If slamming him for a choice cover is the worst part of a critique, then maybe this disc isn’t all that underwhelming. Plus, picking apart Nolan is a bit of a tall order. A consistently solid lyricist and an ever-engaging tunesmith, he almost always provokes thought with all that he does. Additionally his songs are consummately intricate and melodic. But are they truly memorable? Moreover, it’s hard to understand what he’s gunning for with Height. Is this laptop pop? A nod to the Pet Shop Boys? Or just another creative left turn from someone who consistently reinvents himself every time out.
There’s no way of avoiding the obvious. Height is innovative, artistic and something worth remembering. And yet at the same time it is also overdone, ballsy and borderline insufferable. While there’s no debating his prior repertoire or his always incisive lyrics, it’s the execution of Height that leaves one a little startled. Are these really the nine songs he wants to represent his solo debut album? Is this cluttered take on dance-inspired, laptop-pop, really what best represents him? While its probably middle-ground and mildly boring, there’s no reason why Nolan couldn’t have penned a straightforward singer/songwriter effort a la good friend Kevin Devine. But this doesn’t seem to be his MO, at least not this time out. Instead of an engrossing anthology of career-defining songs, we get a catalog of machinated mutations.
Much like Nashville’s Derek Webb, Nolan can be lauded for doing something different and daring, but unlike Webb, who kept his hallmarks in tact, Nolan seems to get a bit lost in the creative process. Height certainly has many peaks, but the album’s few valleys reveal far more about the work as a collective whole. That simple fact leads one to wonder if Nolan is truly ready to tackle the singer/songwriter project. Perhaps he is. But this album keeps me skeptical.