Leaf Teashop (Liverpool)
‘Somber’ and ‘haunting’ are terms that surround Deptford Goth and the kind of delicate synth pop that the Londoner brings to LEAF Tea shop tonight. Since James Blake crooned his way into mainstream consciousness with his Mercury nominated debut, melancholy has always sat awkwardly amongst critical and commercial perception, swinging like a pendulum between derision and acclaim as artists fall on the right, or indeed wrong side of ethereal or dreary.
Life After Defo, Daniel Woodhouse’s tentatively acclaimed debut album, for all its warmth and heart, stayed indirect and ambiguous lyrically, instead using indistinct emotions and sentiments as a way of creating an sweeping, and at times very moving sense of uncertainty. The danger of this form of songwriting of course, is that it very much relies on the listener’s own sense of empathy and imagination, translating into insincerity, even laziness for those not looking to put the work in. Now some of the best songs of all time are built around ambiguity and being open interpretation. I mean just look at Motown in the sixties, Pop Music in the eighties and even more recently; Matt Berninger’s The National. Creating music that provokes emotion on a more expressive level relies almost entirely on the delivery. This is where much of Life After Defo as a record succeeds, as alluring synths and frostbitten chords coax these songs into a state of emotiveness beyond what Woodhouse is capable of achieving lyrically. It is fitting then, that this is where this evening’s performance all falls down.
Accompanied only by a Cellist, Woodhouse stumbles into Defo’s title track like a center back at a penalty shootout. Those little modified instrumental nuances that brightened the album, whimper hesitantly as a vocal line is mumbled to the point of where it could just be a continuous hum and no one would notice the difference. I’m being unfair, but it shouldn’t detract from the baffling indifference just dripping from every song that is rattled through. Feel Real is the Londoner’s only track that even comes close to danceable, so it is no coincidence that it represents the closest associations with pop music. That punchy, deliberate beat that anchors the song is reduced to a muffled footstep, and with it the blood and soul that kept it alive. Woodhouse and his Cellist eventually wake up during a wilted rendition of Years, but only to complain about the excessive chatter going on among the more unsympathetic members of the audience. I mean, even in a venue as open as Leaf, a talkative crowd has more of a reflection of the performance than the manners of those witnessing it.
Bloody Lip is one of the finest album closers this year, offering a startling and very poignant moment of self-reflection, leaving the listener with the sense that despite all the uncertainty, despite all the doubt, this is a man who has found some peace in all the darkness. That gorgeous refrain of ‘There has never been / And there will never be” is disarmingly vulnerable, almost like Woodhouse is on the verge of disclosing a secret but keeps changing his mind. Sung with such an alarming detachment this evening though, it’s almost as if he just can’t be bothered to tell us. A great show is meant to make you reassess an album, keeping it on repeat for the days that follow as the songs take on new forms and sizes. Throughout every song this evening though, I strain to try and mold the sounds emerging from the stage into the shapes I’m used to hearing on the record.
I love the album, so I take absolutely no pleasure in writing any of this. And of course, a record so rich sonically is always going to be difficult to perform live, especially without any sort of substantial tour budget. But with a sound built around such indirect, even apathetic lyrics, it’s the textures, the instrumental flourishes, the shifts in tone and dynamics that are relied upon to engage the listener. This evening is evidence that Woodhouse is the only one who doesn’t understand this. More worryingly though, it suggests that he isn’t being enigmatic or aloof, he just might not have anything to say.