In the early January of last year, Charlie Fink set to work on Noah and the Whale's third album. Holed up in a synagogue in East London, he had little to begin with a few fragments, a sketch for a...
In the early January of last year, Charlie Fink set to work on Noah and the Whale's third album. Holed up in a synagogue in East London, he had little to begin with a few fragments, a sketch for a 10-minute song that resembled Street Hassle, and a set of lyrics begun on a New Year's Day train from Wales to London. But what little there was seemed to suggest the beginnings of something quite special, something markedly different to the songs they had written before.
The continued maturation of Noah and the Whale has been a pleasing thing to follow from the joyous burst of their debut, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, through the lovelorn sobriety of The First Days of Spring, it now reaches a kind of fruition on Last Night on Earth.
Where The First Days of Spring was a contained and inward-looking record that moved at near-underwater speed, Last Night on Earth possesses a curiosity and a vibrancy, a romance and a restlessness, and a clutch of songs that mark out Fink as not just as one of the best songwriters of his generation, but also as a supremely gifted storyteller. These are tales of youth and ageing, of optimism and running away, as well of failure and pride. And it feels like his new life can start, runs the chorus of Life Is Life.
And it feels like heaven.
The album's strong narrative thread was in part inspired by Lou Reed's 1973 album Berlin as well as Tom Waits' 1992 record Bone Machine, and a little Arthur Russell thrown in for good measure. Just people songs, is how Fink describes it. These are simple stories, so you could tell them in hundreds of different ways, and the way you tell them, that's sort of the music.
The way he tells them is at times broad-skied and anthemic particularly on tracks such as L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N and Tonight's The Kind Of Night, while at others there are strokes of unabashed pop Life Is Life, for example, or Just Me Before We Met. And at others still, such as on final track Old Joy, there is a sweet kind of wistfulness. Lyrically, they range from the nostalgic to the vital, songs charged with an urgency, a sense of movement, and an appetite for adventure and the unknown. It is, in many senses, a true coming of age record.
I don't think that coming of age thing has been in anything I've done before, Fink says. But from the beginning I wanted to write a record that had that excitement of being young and being in the night. I think it's that naivity that feeling that things are happening everywhere except where you are, wondering what's out there in the wide world. It's when you're on a bus, you don't know where you're heading, you don't know what's at the end of it, and you have this fantasy that whatever's at the end of it is going to be remarkable and magnificent.
Certainly Noah and the Whale as a band now seem to have come of age. As the leaders of the same British folk-rock scene that spawned Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons, and Emmy the Great, with this album they appear to stand perhaps a little taller and a little broader than their peers; these songs possess a maturity, and a new kind of wisdom: Tall buildings and a wife won't be enough for me, Fink sings on Old Joy. There is more in the world to be found than dreams.
The personnel shifted a little for Last Night on Earth. Drummer Doug Fink left the band last year to concentrate on his medical career. He's my older brother, and there's so many roles he fulfils on the road, not just the drummer, so it's kind of hard, Fink says of his absence. But he's the first person I go to if I need to consult someone, if I need someone's opinion, so he's still been a big part of this record And I think he will come back eventually.
Co-produced by Fink and Jason Lader [Julian Casablancas, The Mars Volta] in Los Angeles, Last Night on Earth features backing vocals by Jen Turner from Here We Go Magic, and gospel vocals by the legendary Waters Sisters, who famously provided backing vocals for Michael Jackson's Wanna Be Starting Something. I was teaching them the vocals for Old Joy, Fink recalls. One of the sisters came in and asked for a latte with six sugars six sugars! and she downed that, went in and gave the best vocal take I've ever heard. Elsewhere, the record features Adam MacDougall of The Black Crowes on Moog and Rhodes, and legendary percussionist Lenny Castro.
There is a strong cinematic element to Last Night on Earth from the deliberately Twin Peaks air of Wild Thing to the album's cast of richly-drawn characters. In part this was fed by Fink's experience of directing the short film that accompanied The First Days of Spring. Film is such a different writing process, it infiltrates the way I write songs, he explains. And a lot of them I imagined as scenes Tonight's the Kind of Night I imagined as this guy running away from home and getting on a bus.
It is also a richly poetic record: last year, Fink read the work of Frank O'Hara for the first time, and fell in love with his poem Having A Coke With You. I wanted Just Me Before We Met to have a feel of that, or a tempo. Just the notion of it. Having A Coke With You is I think a very romantic poem, and that's the only outwardly romantic song on the album, and so I wanted it to have the same approach.
The album's title is also a nod towards Charles Bukowski's poetry collection The Last Night of the Earth Fink says he was attracted to the sense of loser's pride in Bukowski's work. In my head, he says, there is a link between Lou Reed's Berlin, and Bukowski's poetry. The track Life Is Life, is another Bukowski reference, its title tipping its hat to his poem The Laughing Heart a poem whose final lines seem to sum up this record quite perfectly: Your life is your life, it runs. Know it while you have it. You are marvellous. The Gods wait to delight in you.