‘Who’s calling? Who’s calling? Who’s breaking your heart tonight?’ sings Rob Goodwin as he opens The Slow Show’s second LP with Strangers Now, a track that grows with painstaking slowness until it finally answers the frontman’s question and pierces the heart of its listeners. It’s a stunning five minutes and 18 seconds of warm brass and a defiantly constant piano that support the croaking, crooning vocals of the band’s lead singer.
And thus Dream Darling sets off on its journey, cruising through a 10-track odyssey of moving ballads, its lyrics betraying the band’s UK origins by calling upon the Southern Gothic style of Johnny Cash’s later works. In fact, the influence of Cash’s American Recordings stretches further than Goodwin’s poetry. His vocal style, attacking every syllable and note with a weakened but nonetheless resolute sense of purpose, clearly channels Cash’s wizened performances on his famous covers of U2’s One and Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. Meanwhile the minimalist instrumentation – rarely is a full drum arrangement heard and guitar and piano parts are mostly sparing – ensures that his voice is central on every track.
Goodwin and co. do not share the geographical or cultural origins of Mr Cash, nor have they quite reached that reflective, retrospective stage of life that the Nashville legend had when he embarked on his series of iconic recordings with producer Rick Rubin. There is however a sense of maturity on this record that adds weight to the highly personal and affecting lyrics. Dream Darling is The Slow Show’s sophomore record, but feels more like a mid-career victory lap – the sound of a band that has made it through its hedonistic early years and found a new, more sophisticated sound with which it is clearly at ease.
Though Cash is an obvious touchstone, Goodwin’s vocals could perhaps be better compared to the lamenting tones of The National’s Matt Berninger, or even Guy Garvey of Elbow – the interplay between his voice and the brass and string section on several tracks make this the most fitting parallel. But it would be foolish to devote too much time to comparing and contrasting this band’s work with that of other artists; there is a cohesiveness and confidence in The Slow Show’s music that, despite a relatively simplistic instrumental set up and unadventurous use of form and structure, allows them to take steps in their own direction and stand out amidst the ever-increasing blandness of moody alternative rock.
It is worth mentioning that, like Elbow, The Slow Show hail from Manchester, one of the UK’s most historic and thriving music cities. A welcome addition to the band’s line-up is guest vocalist Kesha Ellis, another Mancunian artist who duets with Goodwin on Hurts and Last Man Standing. Hers are short but vital contributions; Goodwin’s almost overwhelming masculine angst remains persistently the album’s dominant feature, but is superbly counteracted on these occasions by Ellis’ tranquil whispered melodies.
Goodwin describes the album as inspired by ‘the typical life-changing experiences that men in their late thirties and forties experience’. If only all men of that age could turn mid-life into such rousing balladry. At once difficult, uncomfortable and beautiful, Dream Darling is a perfect reflection of life, and at that essential listening.