Pigeonholes? Who needs them? Certainly not Gabriel Stelling. A former member of Your Twenties and Metronomy, his debut album under the Night Works banner is an unsettling listen that doesn't want to settle. At times sounding closer to classic soft rock than anything else ('Nathaniel' could have turned up on one of Jackson Browne's late 70s/early 80s albums, for instance), and then just as quickly going all 80s on us ('Armajaro'), Stelling's solo debut is content to look to the past for inspiration, at least musically. In the lyrical department, things are more contemporary, as the album tells the story of characters 'who have played high stakes and gambled it all away'.
An album for these recessionary times? Perhaps not, as it's not as downbeat or political as its inspiration might suggest - opener 'Boys Born in Confident Times' sets the scene with mid-tempo, rolling percussion and a gentle acoustic guitar melody, as well as Stelling's excellent vocals, while 'I Tried So Hard' is the simple and effective album centrepiece, stretching to nearly seven minutes, with all manner of instruments being thrown into the mix as Stelling repeats, "I tried so hard not to lose it, I tried so hard not to care" over a remarkably chilled-sounding bassline and steady beat. Remarkably, those songs are two sides of the same coin, despite being as far removed from each other in musical terms as it's possible to get. The mood darkens as the album goes on, with current single 'Long Forgotten Boy' possessing one of the best hooks on the album, yet arriving swathed in darkness, its lyrics poignant and resonating just as much as its sparse, icy pop feel.
'Arp' does a fine job of closing an album that some would label scattershot and uncertain of its true place, but the eagerness with which Stelling hops between genres and refuses to let his album get bogged down is perhaps its greatest asset. Though it plumbs some dark depths, Urban Heat Island is a surprisingly energetic affair that is content to keep itself mostly hidden to the listener upon initial listens. It's only when they actively seek out more of what the album has to offer that they find it, with songs like the slow-burning 'The Eveningtime' taking the longest to sink in but offering up some of the album's strongest moments. Stelling has made a promising start to his solo career, successfully getting away with things that other artists in his position wouldn't dare attempt. It'll be interesting to see if he does more with this project, though what future Night Works material will sound like is anyone's guess.