In 2012, Tim Smith left Denton, Texas folk-rock heroes Midlake (the band he’d fronted for over a decade) after unsatisfactory recording sessions. Shortly after, his marriage ended. These undoubtedly painful experiences – and the eventual reblooming of hope – are reflected on solo debut Albion, a slow-burning, reflective, often profoundly beautiful gem that merits the marathon wait.
Where 2010’s underrated Courage of Others supped from the cup of 1970’s flute-toting UK folk-rock, Albion finds devoted anglophile Smith (now working as Harp together with partner Kathi Zung) fast-forward a decade to the enduringly resonant British sounds from the ’80s: Joy Division, Cocteau Twins and especially Faith-era The Cure. In some ways, it’s not a radical diversion from Smith’s past work: were it not for drum machines and icy synths, ‘Throne of Amber’ would feel right at home on Midlake’s 2006 bucolic psych-folk/rock masterpiece Trials of Van Occupanther.
At first, the contrast between Smith’s earthy, arcane songwriting and the frosty, permanently overcast aesthetic jars. Gradually, the permanently drizzly soundscapes bloom into a natural match to the fathomless melancholy at the core of Albion. It helps that nakedly beautiful songs such as ‘A Fountain’ feel more compellingly lived-in than the inspired excursions through an imaginary past Smith penned for Midlake.
The further Smith ventures from past templates, the better Albion gets. The weightless, ever-ascending majesty of ‘Shining Spires’ suggests Thom Yorke retooling a horizontally heavy-lidded ’70s Roy Harper tune. Better still is the serene closer ‘Herstmonceux’ (named after a medieval castle in Sussex): “Quietly, the sorrow flees from me / Bright as day the soul no longer grieves,” Smith croons, letting the sunlight peek through the clouds.