If Spottiswoode never made another album, his place in the art-rock pantheon would be secure. From his days in the 90s fronting Washington, DC’s the Zimmermans to his similarly lyrical but considerably darker, Leonard Cohen-tinged career in New York starting around the turn of the century, multi-instrumentalist baritone crooner Jonathan Spottiswoode has been writing and playing richly arranged, sardonically elegant, angst-fueled songs that span from debauched Tom Waits-ish vignettes to lavishly orchestrated epics. He’s back with yet another good album, English Dream, streaming at Spotify. His snarling, psychedelic, politically-fueled 2012 masterpiece Wild Goosechase Expedition was arguably the high point of his career, a hard act to follow. Smartly, he goes in a completely different direction with this one, focusing more on purist tunesmithing than savage lyrical content – although there’s some of that too, and it’s characteristically choice. The band includes John Young on bass, Tim Vaill on drums, Candace DeBartolo on sax, Kevin Cordt on trumpet, Riley McMahon on guitar and Tony Lauria on keys.
The opening track, Till My Dying Day, sets the stage, a jangly, swaying nocturne with richly layered guitars, piano and melodic bass, rising and falling with lustrous, ambered horns in as it winds out. Spottiswoode’s voice has taken on more gravitas and soul with the years: he’s never sung more effortlessly, and more affectingly, than he does here.
The second track, Golden Apple, sounds like early zeros noir NYC legends DollHouse doing a creepy bolero – it’s a kiss-off anthem. Clear Your Mind is the Byrds as the Church – or for that matter, Marty Willson-Piper solo – might do it. I Didn’t Know I Was So Sad works a steady, vintage Bowie/Ian Hunter piano ballad groove, with hints of flamenco and 60s psychedelia. The title track moves from stark to even darker over a tricky 5/4 rhythm, like Joy Division’s The Eternal reinvented as early 70s Britfolk.
The aptly titled Majesty works a series of titanic swells up from pretty pastoralia. Genius Flower sets an ominous horn chart and Beatlesque chromatics to a staggered, dancing rhythm. With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, the moody chamber pop anthem Butterfly might well be the album’s best song. Spottiswoode picks up the pace after that with No Time for Love, its brasslike guitar track and brisk new wave beat evoking the Church at their catchiest circa 1986 or so.
Gorgeously clanging bouzouki mingles with deep autumn orchestral colors on Another Year, a sardonic look at getting stuck on the romantic treadmill. So-called “coming-of’-age” songs usually suck: they tend to romanticize everything, but Dreamer Boy, a bittersweet recollection of middle school-age angst, reaches beyond that for a grandeur that finally peaks with a series of absolutely gorgeous downward runs on the piano. It contrasts with the snidely bluesy Blonde on Blonde sway of Who Were You Baby, a look back at a girl who would have turned out to be poison had she stuck around.
Melancholy Boy blends jazzy horns into tasty major/minor changes and then a long, lush, rippling outro. The album ends up with the gorgeously jangly, high-spirited nouveau-Byrds anthem Sweetest Girl. Much as the era of the big-studio album is pretty much finished, it’s heartwarming to see Spottiswoode still at it, artfully layering all those intricate, tastefully played tracks of bass and drums and guitars and keys and vocals into a majestic, cohesive whole. What else is there to say: as you would expect, it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2014 so far.