Album Review: Novelty Island – How Are You Coping With This Century?

8.5/10

Novelty Island How Are You Coping With This Century? artwork

There haven’t been many clever albums for a while, have there?

When we say clever, we don’t mean something that tries to teach you about nuclear physics or stuff like that. We mean, you know…clever.

Granted, one of the songs on How Are You Coping With This Century? gamely refers to a ‘double decker dodecahedron do,’ but Novelty Island – singer-songwriter Thomas McConnell – is a brainiac in more surprising ways than that.

On it you can hear the Liverpudlian doing things the right way; having an idea, thinking what might sound good about it and then thinking what the people listening to it might think.

That’s the clever bit, but it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a PhD in pop if you’ve no ear for a tune as well. Thanks though to an obvious devotion for Paul McCartney via Wings in their imperial period, the bones of McConnell’s debut album are consistently wholesome enough to rub shoulders with him and some of Merseyside’s other famous sons as well.

There are a number of connotations to adopting Novelty Island as a name too but, like the music, the none-size-fits-all label gives its quintessential British eccentricity a happy home.

Opener This Bird is lyrically full of the prose as everyday nonsense we secretly whitter to ourselves – like, ‘Two birds blindfolded on Japanese TV show’, but both the naggingly insistent chords and happiest-of-go-lucky choruses hint either at something or nothing dependent on whether your down is up, or the other way round.

The listener isn’t quite left marooned waving their blue passport, however; Cowboy On A Bicycle finds our hero jollying it up in the American south-west, a banjo sweetly pluckin’ some more surrealism for the line dancing roughnecks, although it’s hard not to imagine the director shouting ‘Cut!’ and then all the scenery being carried away.

You can’t tell if this commitment to low-key mania is natural or a deliberate mechanism to shield the truth. Underneath the sense of quirk are songs so good that many writers could scratch around for years before they came even close to striking this sort of gold. Sitting quietly in the corner of the pub nursing a pint of what you’re having, How Are You Coping With This Century? makes greatness – being and doing – sound plain easy.

The hardest place is knowing where to begin. Michael Afternoon is so effortless, a congruently strange character piece on which McConnell exercises his oddball wit and storyteller’s gift with sublime results. Or perhaps it’s best advice to flip to the Laurel Canyon on a Megabus of I’ll Sleep In April, before then marveling at Turtle Rock’s unfussy chops and immaculate recherche boogie.

There are some obvious things being leaned on here whilst everyone waits impatiently for a new album by The Fernweh. Blackcurrant Sky builds on the psychedelic dreaminess of The Coral’s recent material, whilst the heavenly simple Jangleheart is just waiting for Lee Mavers to pronounce it a rough demo to be finished at some point in the next twenty years.

This is a record from which a final word is neither needed or necessary, but if there’s a moment at which you feel even it can’t get any better that would be the mellifluous Ladybird, a mind-bogglingly straightforward tune that carries a threat to the sanity of anyone who will (by accident only) end up more than a hundred metres away from it at any point in the near future.

It’s clever, you see. You don’t know you’re falling for this record because it’s so much more about what it lacks – ego, anger, regret – that makes How Are You Coping With This Century? such a joy.

So get in early and beat the queue for Novelty Island, taking bookings right now.

Andy Peterson
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