Saturday, 10 November 2018

Will Varley

19th October 2018

Stereo, Glasgow

In light of the number of occasions I have heard Will Varley thank and acknowledge Frank Turner for helping to raise his profile, I occasionally wonder if I am perhaps the only person on the planet who “found” Frank via Will.

I first saw Will perform at King Tuts a couple of years back, knowing next to nothing about him beforehand:

I thought he was just great, having the modest-sized crowd in the palm of this hand throughout, with his intelligently-crafted compositions funny, angry and poignant by turns.  Doing my customary Interweb digging afterwards, I kept seeing the name Frank Turner popping up associated with Varley; and thus did the thread run.

You may well ask how I, as a reasonably diligent follower of contemporary music, had missed out on the Essex Boy's rise to prominence – but hey, sometimes big things get hidden in plain sight.

Anyway, this evening Will was coming towards the end of a long tour promoting his fifth studio album The Spirit of Minnie.  Although you would barely have thought so from the set list; for we were presented with only two tunes (Seven Days and Statues) from it.  Just as telling perhaps, was the fact he barely scraped the surface of his previous collection: 2016's Kingsdown Sundown.  

These two albums had each seen a definite shift in Varley's songwriting – to something more serious and mature, one might attest.  There was certainly not even a glimmer of Varley's trademark light-heartedness in the lyrics of either collection.

Will Varley - Glasgow, October 2018

Will Varley - Glasgow, October 2018

The new album, in particular, represents a bit of a dark journey, I have to say.  The opening two tunes (All Those Stars and Seven Days) are each as close as the collection gets to bounciness; both songs benefiting from the singer's decision to use a backing band on this album.  Even if, on the latter it seems odd to hear such an articulate lyricist resorting to a da-da-da refrain; the jauntiness of which sounding just a touch forced.

Breaking the Bread is a beautifully understated composition, probably the only one on the collection which harks back to the charms of those first three albums.  But thereafter things certainly become rather difficult for a spell, and both Statues and Spirit of Minnie are hard work to sit through.  I found myself at this point willing Will to just lighten up.

Let it Slide comes across like it was written and recorded during a late-night drinking session.  Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course – spontaneity can bring its own rewards - but this is a seam already mined far more successfully by Varley on Ursa Minor's As For My Soul.

I did like The Postman though, it being one of the few on the collection where Will - and producer Cameron McVey - certainly took full advantage of the extended artistic palette available with the presence of the additional musicians.  The song is a real slow-burner building to a crashing crescendo, and really should have been used to close the album.

The lyrics ostensibly relate the tale of one Ferdinand Cheval, a 19th Century French postie who would pick up and take home stones and rocks he found whilst on his rounds.  From which he, somewhat improbably, over a period of 33 years, built a huge temple-cum-sculpture in his garden.  Although I am sure there is probably some allegory or other going on within the lyrics.

The lengthy Insect closes the album, but once again this treads ground more successfully traversed on an earlier song: Concept of Freedom, and is a bit of an anticlimax after what The Postman delivered to the listener.

All of which leaves Varley in a bit of a quandary I would suggest.  His connection with his audience in a live setting very much relies upon, not only his fine songwriting, but his endearing line in sparkling repartee and razor-sharp wit.  Presenting live the bulk of Minnie would make for a thoroughly depressing evening's listening.

Or, is he going to, I wonder, continue to produce “serious” albums, but persisting with falling back upon his early (more gig-friendly) back catalogue when playing live?  That approach, I imagine, will soon become subject to the laws of diminishing returns.

Set list
Weddings and Wars
Seize the Night
Until the Grass Gets Greener
The Sounds of Markets Crashing
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Seven Days
Advert Soundtrack
From Halcyon
I Got This email (cannot quite recall where in the set this one was)
We Don't Believe You

February Snow
King for a King

Will Varley - Glasgow, October 2018

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