Review: Philip Selway – Strange Dance

Artwork for Radiohead drummer Philip Selway's 2023 album Strange Dance

Philip Selway’s new solo album struggles to hold attention.

Usually musicians are trying to convince both themselves and their audience that they possess the secret of eternal youth but speaking about his third solo album Strange Dance, sometime Radiohead drummer Philip Selway has instead admitted that, ‘One of the things I’ve liked about this record is it’s me as a 55-year-old not trying to hide that fact’.

Radiohead continue to be on an extended sabbatical, but to save any gossip he’s happy to admit for reference to also being a fan of The Smile, which features Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and released A Light For Attracting Attention last year.

One of the reasons for Philip Selway’s contentment might be that there are no shortage of potential side projects for him to turn his hand to – be it composing movie soundtracks or filling in on the stool with groups (or supergroups) a plenty.

All these distractions have meant that it’s been almost a decade since his previous solo outing, Weatherhouse.

One of his first conscious acts on Strange Dance however was to excuse himself from drumming duties, handing over the sticks to Valentina Magaletti who was joined by an ensemble cast of recruits which included Quinta, Adrian Utley, Laura Moody, Juliet Russell and Hannah Peel.

As an experience, Philip Selway set out to build a means of giving the listener a place to escape but cynics might have it that some of the song titles – There’ll Be Better Days, What Keeps You Awake At Night, Make It Go Away – could be seen as evidence of a midlife crisis in the making.

If that was true then there’s little evidence of it however. Taking inspiration from the likes of Tom Waits and envisioning the finished work as, ‘Carole King collaborating with Daphne Oram’, the expertly drawn synthesis of differing emotions makes for grown up’s music, built with subtle fluctuations of mood and tone.

The piano dominates, the album a showcase for its versatility. Opener Little Things, with its cinematic chords and orchestrated string arrangement, is almost inevitably filled with the kind of widescreen melodrama culled from its writer’s past experience of scoring films.

Here also Check For Signs Of Life flickers from low to high, the lyrics reflecting a subject changed by events they couldn’t control: ‘I say your name/It sounds different, now you’re gone/Well, this life has changed and shaped us all/And this life has changed forevermore.’

If there is to be a complaint then sometimes Philip Selway’s voice feels too slight, almost at times a ghostly whisper when rarely does the music frame that sympathetically. Occasionally the course also dips into tepid Coldplay-ish MOR, particularly on The Other Side.

Harsh? Perhaps. The tenderness and introspection of What Keeps You Awake At Night at least is the reverse, its strings and gently understated thrum finding a music with supreme empathy for its words.

Perhaps surprisingly though given its creator’s day job, percussion centric exercises here are at a premium with only the title-track prizing rhythm over harmony to any obvious extent.

As if to emphasise the point, closer There’ll Be Better Days is near beatless: intended as a message of optimism despite the adversity kicking down most people’s doors, its abstract wending underlines the feeling that a different, more absorbing record was possible.

Nobody’s hiding on Strange Dance; Phillip Selway is a very talented musician, working with many other very talented musicians.

But despite the raft of good people and good intentions, in a crowded life where room needs to be made for everything it’s rarely vital enough to ignore something else for.

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