All that is left in the celebration boxes are Bountys and Snickers bars, you feel guilty for that cinema outing to see The Hobbit for the third time, and your bank balance is starting to look a little rosier; it's always sad to wave goodbye to the festive period and the comforts that come with it. However, lest we forget, it is the New Year and this is the period for new beginnings. So, I span the promo wheel and it landed on our man, Conrad Lambert.
Humungous major label investment in the late-nineties, self-imposed exile, signing with an independent to eventual cult-hero in a more contemporary sense; I've been aware of Merz (aka Conrad Lambert) for a while without really indulging in his wealth of material. However, when I was given the chance to cover his new record No Compass Will Find Home, I hoped it would be as disjointed and flamboyant as his back-catalogue and history. Recorded in "a laboratory once used by Albert Einstein" and all over the historical Bern in Switzerland, there's an idiosyncratic charm and absolution that binds this album. Without further ado, here's No Compass Will Find Home.
'Arrows' is articulated by licks of cymbals, a subtle string section and determined finger-plucked guitar with an incandescent yet non-committal melodious character, despite that, you'd always say that the vocals are its defining feature. There are numerous references to Bern's mountainous landscape and nature within the content. The refrain, "Moonlight makes all things clearer" and its major accompaniment feels poignant, but it's a shame that poetic phrases like "pockets of mystery' have been bullied and nullified by a thousand dull singer-songwriters with nothing to say. There are no worries about the truth and complexity of Lambert's work though, and the opening of the record flows as it is intended to. Transitional track 'Lauterbrunnen' introduces a muddier and more electronic Merz that you’re likely to associate with his radio-successful material: it is bereft of vocals and relies on its minimalist charisma to push us through to the fast-paced pop track 'Judge'.
It's not a surprise that this record wasn't recorded in Britain, that's probably because it sounds nothing like any other records recorded here. There's a dynamic respect for the songs and their individual nature on No Compass Will Find Home. Fans of 'Eudamonia' might not have time for 'The Hunting Owl' as they just don't have too much in common – but who cares? They're both written by Lambert, so why not just trust your audience to admire that guile? Producer Matthew Herbert seems to really understand the themes of juxtaposition on the album and his involvement certainly plays a part in the impressive progressions of these songs.
'Toy' has been hailed by many (KCRW, The Guardian) since its head was reared in the latter moments of 2012, and there's good reasoning for that. Powering through his range at ease, the lead vocal performance is stunning and the only component which really complicates the pop-number. Whilst the lyrics themselves aren't as expansive or impressive as tragic songs like 'Our Airman Lost' and 'The Hunting Owl', they're reflective, visual and simplistic. Arriving at the mid-point of the record, it's a heartening moment.
There's room for throwaway songs on this unusual release. Knobbly debris like 'Credo' and 'Judge' are probably weaker than I give them credit for, but there's nothing really stupefying or overtly irritating about No Compass Will Find Home as a whole, and powerful pieces like ‘Goodbye My Chimera’ creep around the corner before it becomes a concern.
The record relaxes into its ending phase much like the way it begins. From 'Our Airman Lost', there's very much a feeling of an impending close, which might be something to do with the thought and intelligence in the subject matter. Some of the songs were heavily influenced by life-saving brain surgery for his brother-in-law during the album’s recording, a "prolonged brush with death" which forced Lambert to "to look reality in the face" and "when I (he) did that all I (he) saw was fantasy and metaphor. Nothing 'real' made any sense."
Our Airman Lost is an intelligent record for somebody who likes to wholly indulge themselves in the smallest nuances of a release and songs alike. As his past releases have taught us: it's much more likely to enjoy success overseas than in the UK, and that suits Merz fine. Whilst I don't think that it's a monumental album or possesses the greatest songsmithery you'll hear in 2013, there’s plenty to enjoy here; so choose a surface and scratch away.