On 2014’s Hendra, Ben Watt rekindled his solo career with a deeply reflective album of hauntingly beautiful songs. The writing, recording and subsequent touring caused the singer-songwriter to rediscover his voice and helped open up a rich vein of creativity to produce a flurry of new songs.
The resulting album, ‘Fever Dream’, is a loosely conceptual voyage musing on the ever evolving complexities of love and relationships, purposely progressing from a hard edged, almost difficult, atmosphere to a lighter feel of hope as the album develops. It builds on the template of the previous outing, both stylistically and in terms of personnel; Bernard Butler once again contributing sublime guitar work, while new double bassist Rex Horan adds a little extra depth.
The first single ‘Gradually’ kicks off with atmospherically bluesy guitar lines from Butler and is a spacious slow burner with a hard edge. The textured layers of guitar build intensely to give a gorgeous richness to the sound as Ben fires off an emotive vocal performance. The title track, ‘Fever Dream’, follows with an acoustic melody and understated touches from Butler, who seems to be plucking notes out of the air with ease. M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger adds a subtle layer of vocals, while Watt seems to be stretching his voice a little more; an emotional edge also appearing on the brooding ‘Women’s Company’, with its killer hook to the chorus. Watt’s ability to work a hook is evident throughout the album, especially on the upbeat ‘Between Two Fires’, with its subtly shifting percussion, and on the otherwise melancholy atmosphere of ‘Winter’s Eve’.
The second half of the album is no less textured, but takes a noticeable turn towards a more relaxed vibe. ‘Faces of My Friends’ has rhythms reminiscent of Everything But The Girl and is a light but sophisticated pop song on how people’s lives intertwine as “We fall through the world like flakes of snow”. There is a similarly tropical feel to the rhythms of ‘Running With The Front Runners’, the double bass sound superb, though it contrasts sharply with the living on the edge lyrical content.
Watt has the ability to paint such vivid pictures with the everyday details of his words, ‘Bricks and Wood’ being a master class in simple yet descriptive story telling. Here he turns a drive to the (now ruined) family home into a reflection on the importance we attach to physical things, when it’s the untouchable memory that carries the warmth or pain. The song manages to retain that sense of hope underpinning the laid back reflection of previous track ‘Never Goes Away’, with its bluesy guitar licks and whispers of organ.
Although many of the songs capture a similar vibe, they are all distinctive in terms of style; none more so than closing track ‘New Year of Grace’. The delicate folk melody is spacious and airy, the guest vocal of Marissa Nadler providing beautiful accompaniment to this understated tale of enduring love. It’s a simple yet emotional note with which to finish.
The ten songs on offer here make for a quality listen, the space and richness to the sound with the altered tunings, reverb and blurred lines between the instrumental textures packed with sublime subtleties. As well as finding a little extra edge to his vocal, Ben Watt has once again proved himself a damn fine songwriter, repeated listens revealing ever more detail; in a nutshell – excellent.
Fever Dream is out now on Unmade Road through Caroline International.
Catch Ben, Bernard and Co. on tour during the coming months: http://benwatt.com/dates