I first saw Roddy Hart play on a lonesome festival stage; it was a rainy afternoon, the songs wispily dissolving out over the Galloway hills, and you could tell even then, from Hart’s eloquent, heartfelt ballads, that such a tender-voiced talent was destined for great things.
Flash-forward a decade or so and Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire have just released their second album, Swithering, a beautiful sophomore effort which showcases a variety of influences, from Americana’s folk rock heroes to eighties pop (Aztec Camera) and the edgier forays of contemporary indie.
The Scots word ‘swithering’ refers to indecision, a sense of being suspended between two courses of action.
Lyrically, Hart swithers between home and abroad – between native Glasgow, Berlin and California – and this is reflected musically in a dialogue between the atmospheric landscape of Scottish indie (think: The Twilight Sad, Mogwai, Admiral Fallow—all bands who have worked with Swithering’s co-producer Paul Savage), just a wee tinge of electronica and a livelier dosage of Springsteen-infused rock and American swagger.
This is also an album haunted by echoes of lost loves, places and memory traces.
The band make meaning out of these ruins, oscillating between doleful ballads and the joy of catchy pop melodies, flourishing solos and musical idiosyncrasies—Hart’s magnified Scots pronunciation on ‘Low Light’ is a real treat.
Debut single, ‘Violet’, sets out the album’s tone, with its bittersweet piano, velvet vocals, melancholy violin, and softly reverberating guitar, accompanied by a tastefully nostalgic, black-and-white video which presents the band playing around in a park with kites and footballs, shifting between subdued pauses and self-conscious silliness.
‘Tiny Miracles’ opens with the confident and expansive indie rock that The Lonesome Fire established on their self-titled debut, where clean guitars and tight rhythms give centre-stage to Hart’s resonant vocals.
Shifting into U2 territory, the epic ‘Berlin’ combines lush harmonies and trembling guitar bends with snappy rhythms and an almost languid, mournful emotiveness that nevertheless refuses to lose its momentum.
Like several other tracks on the album, ‘Berlin’ breaks down and revitalises itself through a midway change in key and tempo, crystallising a sense of affirmation that moves from the chorus’ soaring anguish to a building, memorialising hope: “you were my first love / you’ll be my only love / I’ll never leave you / my Berlin”.
‘Low Light’ takes a new direction, with a funky bassline and sprinkles of techno bleeps, percussive shimmers and a more flamboyant vocal delivery that very much recalls Talking Heads.
While Hart’s influences are worn firmly on his sleeve, what reins in the bombast and keeps it genuine – an homage to rather than reproduction of former styles – is the honesty of the songs and the willingness to mix say a surfy guitar solo in ‘Dreamt You Were Mine’ with a breakdown into choral harmonies, or the rockier ‘Sliding’ which confidently pulls off its string solo over crashing drums and thundering power chords.
What holds the album together, in spite of its generic variety, is the sustained intensity.
Rockier numbers like ‘Dreamt You Were Mine’ and ‘Strange Addictions’ are placed between slower tracks which explore the power of empathy against introversion, mental illness and the feeling of being lost, some of the album’s main themes.
In consonance with its title, ‘No Monsters’ addresses the problem of metaphorical monsters, presenting a positive route out of delusion and depression which never feels cheesy or contrived; it’s not unlike a much glossier, tighter version of an early Bright Eyes track, only Hart transforms Oberst’s gloomy drawl into something smoother, though no less pure.
The soft, waltz-like reverberations of ‘I Thought I Could Change Your Mind’ constitute another well-crafted ballad, where loneliness and self-doubt seek comfort in sultry couplets which paint both romantic visions of escape (“fought back my way past the falling debris / lost a day by the silvery sea”) and painful sincerity: “at the sermon I burst into tears / overcome with irrational fears,” against faint strings and softly-plucked cross rhythms.
The band more than earn comparisons to The National on such tracks, but they create a uniquely surreal atmosphere on album closer, ‘We’re the Immortals’, where yearning vocals play out over a thudding, slow-pulsing rhythm.
Images appear and dissolve in the grand designs of the song: the “pink summer air”, “vanity fair”, “Highlands in the sun” fade lovingly as Hart earnestly confronts the question of mortality and success.
Bringing together a childlike wonder with the old Scots’ habit of self-effacement, “how did we get here? / we have come so very far”, among soaring drums and brass which then fades undramatically, ‘We’re The Immortals’ encapsulates the album’s fusion of vernacular sincerity with a strong punch of musical ambition.
An array of musical comparisons abound, but what distinguishes Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire is the cinematic richness of their seven-piece sound.
With Swithering, they’ve created something powerful and warm-hearted; a record which never loses sight of itself and feels like a real journey, paying tribute to its roots while firmly grasping the future.
Words: Maria Sledmere