What a wonderful mind for composition Liam Singer has. Four albums into his career, he’s coming up with ever-more-detailed songs which only fit the pop label due to their presentation and singability. In all other respects, he’s a classical songwriter, building a song from cellar to roof, all parts in parallel: a detailed patterner with each idea serving the larger one.
A very small number of songwriters take the trouble to think like this. Brian Wilson and Prince, obviously. Jeff Lynne, Sufjan Stephens and Stephen Merritt, perhaps. Tim Smith, definitely – the interplay of vocal parts on Stranger I Know particularly recalls Smith’s pastoral work with Sea Nymphs or the more delicate moments on Cardiacs records as worked out with William D. Drake (another comparison that can be thrown into the circle). At work in his current hideaway in Queens, Liam Singer belongs to this world of the total song-composers: the ones for whom genre barriers are predominantly bubbles of resistance, and for whom form and content are inseparable.
Stranger I Know sounds like many things. Its links to American minimalism are clear in its collection of elegant cycles (from oompah bass to arching cello; shakers and flute; a mathematical glockenspiel climb) as they move against each other, interplaying in uplifting counter-rhythms. Beyond that, Liam’s omnivorous musical diet is made clear in the breadth of arrangement and intonation, stretching from romantic piano to staccato gamelan pot-clunk. Each instrument comes sheathed in its own immediate mood and pace, hanging onto its place in the dance by a skilful fingertip: just enough to snag a little tension and independence; just enough to flirt.
Shadowed and overflown (as ever) by the spectral caroling of soprano voices, Liam sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination. It’s all a little archaic: a spiritual love ballad with swaying time, an elusive subject and a courtly seriousness which ultimately fails to mask its fervour. “Stranger I know / thy face / from a dream. / All night I’ve yearned to hear that song. / – Once, it sang me.” There are hints of transformation and liberation here – “What was / before me / is now / behind me. / Strings fall / off of / a body,” – but devotion and freedom end up so closely wound together that there’s nothing between them. Liam finally stands set loose on the verge of… something. It’s unclear, it’s unsure, it could even be an end; but it’s welcomed, and while Liam’s left some things behind, he’s not alone. “Saw God’s / features – they / can keep ’em all. / There is no / voice to follow / now. / And as the / noise / takes over, you / just hold your / breath, I’ll hold / mine too.”
Stranger I Know is also a little exercise in time-travel, working a gentle auger down through several generations of American tune and peeping through the hole. Liam’s previous songs have been beautifully arranged, evoking a classical ambience. This one – balancing a subtle, minimal complexity with fleeting kisses at its reference points – ups the game. In its shifting and its overlaying, you can hear migration at work. A little dose of romantic Europe dapples a line of American mountains: the breathless chorus (its rhythm offset from the dreamy verse) steps in like an old-country village dance setting up against the pistons and presses of a little factory in the hills. Behind the tinkling delicacy, that bass drum which comes in for the bridge hint at a barn-dance stomp: Shaker Loops to hometown hoedown.
All of this activity is encapsulated within less than three minutes. In, out, open. A little wonder.
Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’
Hidden Shoal Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Released: 6th March 2013