Noah and the Whale have written a breakup album, and it’s called The First Days of Spring. Charlie Fink, the band’s singer/guitarist, went through what must’ve been a nasty split from a lover (do the specifics matter?), and it left sadness and heartbreak all over Noah and the Whale’s second album. Song titles like “I Have Nothing,” “My Broken Heart,” and “Stranger” drop not-so-subtle hints as to what is contained within. Which, of couse, would be fine, if Fink’s lyrics found a way to dig deep and resonate.
The album’s opening couplet starts things off well enough. “It’s the first day of spring/ And my life is starting over again,” mumbles Fink on the title track. Heavy, sure, but the life-beginning-anew sentiment, spring serving as the chamber in which regrowth occurs, is ear-catching. And yet in the very same song Fink declines into hackneyed platitudes: “But like a cut-down tree, I will rise again/ And I will be bigger and stronger than before.” The problem is, I don’t believe him. At least not yet. The wounds are too fresh for such a turnaround. And maybe Fink knows this; maybe he’s telling himself he’ll rise again just to hear himself say it, the nascent stages of getting over “her.” Two songs later, on “I Have Nothing,” Fink is evoking more leafy imagery, lamenting, “I’m the flower you’re keeping/ That without love will wilt and die.” He might grow vertical and strong at some point, but he’s got to wilt a few times first.
But what of the music? Well, Noah and the Whale really know how to drive home a point. Accoustic guitar and piano notes ring out wearily, lonely in their own right. Doug Fink keeps his drumming a bit muffled, punching lightly in the background, serving as a languid but entirely necessary sonic heartbeat. Noah and the Whale do well when adding a bit of feedback, or a blithe horn section, something to break up the otherwise weighty earnestness of many of the album’s tracks. The First Days of Spring‘s middle section, from “My Broken Heart” through “Love of an Orchestra,” finds Charlie Fink’s band adding much needed depth (and a pulse) to the album’s surplus of bereaved ballads. “My Broken Heart” features electric-guitar feedback and a punchy trumpet; “Love of an Orchestra” makes itself known with a lively chorale. You almost get the sense that Fink really might be coming out the other side of his breakup, if the music is any harbinger. On “Stranger,” Fink, almost exuberant, sings, “You know in a year it’s gonna be better/ You know in a year I’m gonna be happy.”
By album’s end, things aren’t all bad for Fink and company. And isn’t that what people like about stories, a character getting somewhere, literally or mentally in a difference place than where he started? Fink declares himself “Free from all [her] pain” on the final song, and he seems to believe it. As a cathartic exercise, I’m sure The First Days of Spring has done wonders for Charlie Fink. As a document to a breakup, it’s all a bit middling and lifeless. Sadness is one thing, but it’s spring for Noah and the Whale. Where’s the color?