“I’m not a playboy or a poet,” so says the vocalist on “Love is a Sign.” I believe the first part based on their shyness alone – but so much detail is put into the lyrics that the second half is one of those cases of loveable modesty.
For example, opener “Love Goes On!” starts romantically (even if “Dreaming of birds that are blue” isn’t exactly how anyone thinks of anyone else, is it?) but somehow ends with “Late at night when I want you / I lock you in my room,” but the change isn’t noticeable unless you’re reading along because the sunny melodies provided by the wordless hook, and repeated “I know a thing about love (/darkness)”’s and “Love goes on anyway”’s, plus the great guitarwork during the verses grab your attention and hold it the whole way through. Similarly, the clean production bringing out the jangle of the electric guitar makes “Streets of Your Town” – the best song here, obviously – sound like a jaunt down memory lane, except these memories are the sort that you spend half the time ruminating and the other half actively trying to forget. The first non-chorus line, “Don’t the sun look good today?” is made a tangible reality by being immediately followed by the “Shine” hook, exhaled by Amanda Brown like a cloud of smoke on a calm day (really wish she took on a larger role vocally on the rest of the album, but alas) and cut down immediately afterwards by the lines, “But the rain is on its way / Watch the butcher shine his knives / And this town is full of battered wives.” “Can an album be catchy and twisted at the same time?” Robert Christgau asked elsewhere. Most definitely yes, these two tracks answer.
Those two songs are great, and if I were making an EP out of this album, I’d also take “Was There Anything I Could Do?” – also, like those two tracks, released as a single – because it’s one of the most immediate tracks on the album, starting at a sprint-pace and later joined in by strings (that makes a great bridge). That being said, the switch from third-person narration to first seems accidental at best and amateur at worst (“She comes home and she tells him / Listen baby we’re through / I don’t know what happened next”) and the vocal melody in the verses remind me of the choruses in Soft Cell’s “Forever the Same.” “Quiet Heart” would come along for the ride too; despite being the shortest track here (the wordless vocal part seems thrown in to push it past the 2-minute mark), it manages to stand out thanks to having one of the more indelible melodies on the album.
The rest? The only truly bad track here is “Quiet Heart,” where the first instance of the insufferable chorus is enough to make me press skip every time. The rest of the tracks are pleasant and have fetching moments, but never does it all come together as perfectly as on “Streets Of Your Town.” I quite how the transition between fingerpicked arpeggios in the verse and the jangly riff afterwards on “Love is a Sign” isn’t awkward as it sometimes might be on other albums; the last minute of “You Can’t Say No Forever” recalls some of the similarly-spirited tracks off the Smiths’ Meat is Murder and the ghostly vocals and occasional note struck on the piano breaking through were lovely additions; as mentioned, Amanda Brown’s backing vocals help elevate “It’s All Right” out of mediocrity and prevent the dramatic singing on “Clouds” from being overly so, and though closer “Dive for Your Memory” doesn’t offer anything interesting at all musically, the sentiment in the song’s final two verses is one I deeply connect with, as if to say “We did stand that chance” but that was a long time ago.
Basically, one great song and a couple of other good ones, but for the most part, all I hear is the Smiths without Morrissey’s personality – hate him or not, does anyone deny that he had that up the (/his) wazoo? – and who would want that?