Last year’s single ‘What The Fuck’ is a such a lush and mournful opener I had already been asking myself if Ghost Alive could be as good as some of last year’s US releases on the indie-rock scale of sentimental awesomeness, as its gentle strings and whistled outro sweep in on a wave of studio echo and the rest of the record holds up to scrutiny. If you are looking for major chords look elsewhere because this is an album recorded almost exclusively in minor scales. Grown up indie from a dark place. Not depressing, but beautifully realised melancholy.
Tim Buckley-like acoustic runs, simple piano and orchestration throughout conjure landscapes and firstfall. ‘Rain’ grows into an epic green screen of sound and ‘Fear’, with its falsetto, is like ice skating on a frozen lake while companion piece ‘Here I Am’ is a fast rolling terrain of dandelions and moss about falling back in love as spring breaks; its looping three-note piano motif has the natural reverb of a studio as big as the valleys. The overblown similes may be hackneyed but Ghost Alive is so evocative at times in its unconcealed ambition and panoramic reach the grandiose superlatives stick.
At others a workmanlike ballast presides over the chamberal and funereal and this is reflective of the underlying theme, since frontman Nathan Nicholson lost both his parents and his unborn child the band have teamed up with CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) to help spread a message of hope. So, it’s not quite Chris Martin penning Paradise.
Previous Boxer Rebellion albums have suffered in the face of Coldplay-without-the-hooks type criticism and there still remains a lack of an obvious centrepiece despite ‘Love Yourself’ growing gracefully into a ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ moment on any other album but perhaps diluted by the overarching stratospherics of this one.
While the Tim Buckley thing never really goes away the scope and thoroughness, for want of a better word, of Ghost Alive is breath-taking. The gentle brass on ‘Don’t Ever Stop’ is so out of place it takes us out of the story altogether and we are now on the outside looking in (or like recalling a vivid dream) and you suddenly realise how absorbing this record is. Or on ‘River’; again those acoustic runs, an old man looks back on his life still dreaming of being led to the sea from his Steinbeckian perch as the melancholy prevails stopping just short of dipping into a true sadness. A sense of guilt runs through the whole record, as you might surmise given the source material, and it’s only on closer ‘Goodnight’, a simple acoustic lullaby, that this burden is perhaps both literally and figuratively put to bed.
For sure, it’s not going to be the most original album of the year but on this, the band’s sixth, The Boxer Rebellion have hit upon something timeless and placeless, poignant and gorgeous.