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Bryde - The Volume of Things Music Album Reviews

Sarah Howells’ latest project is simple and sweet; its lower stakes fit an album about finding peace of mind amid sensory overload.

This is not the first time Sarah Howells has been on the brink of larger success with a smartly written, well-arranged pop record. The Volume of Things, her second album as Bryde, is the latest in a line of projects stretching back to the early 2000s, all constantly on the verge of stardom before a change in course feels necessary. Her previous band, Paper Aeroplanes, released the kind of friendly, folksy records that rarely find critical acclaim or commercial success, but manage to develop a modest fanbase anyway via niche folk blogs and rotation on BBC’s adult contemporary station Radio 2 next to Bear’s Den and Billie Marten. The praise still came with caveats like “old-fashioned” and “hardly in vogue”. Howells’ work in Bryde was darker, culminating in the moody breakup album Like An Island in 2018. Bryde. But The Volume of Things once again embraces the sweetness of her Paper Aeroplanes work. It feels smaller, but the lower stakes fit an album about finding peace of mind amid sensory overload.
It’s not a groundbreaking album (this is a record that rhymes “fire” with “desire” within its first 30 seconds, then does it again several songs later), but on an album that feels designed to be accessible, that’s the point. The best lyrics on the record narrow the scope to a search for connection, viewing love as a way to be unburdened: “Another Word for Free” repeats, “Would you be the weight off my shoulders?” while on “Paper Cups,” Howells wants to “Sip on your sympathy” to free herself. The words are about feeling free, but the music is restrained and straightforward.
Thomas Mitchener’s production rarely involves more than a basic band setup, and even when the occasional synth makes an appearance it’s more often the focal point of a song than window dressing. By design, the album rarely gets too ambitious, but the songwriting is strong enough to make every moment distinct. The best hint at something denser; lead single “The Trouble Is” follows its chorus with a wordless, dreamy collection of “heyayayayayahs.” “Handing it Over,” the lone song helmed by Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai engineer Paul Savage, is a glimpse of something bigger.

Having an edge is largely unnecessary on an album like this, but the album could take some risks. The arrangement for “Outsiders” feels like it’s working through a checklist for Haunting Indie Ballad instead of building with the song’s love story. When a song like “Flies” actually aims for a dramatic crescendo, the brightness of the production mutes the impact. For better or worse, anything more dramatic would ruin the album’s aesthetic; the closer is a “Blue Bucket of Gold”-style ballad without the discomfiting ambience of Sufjan’s music, yet “discomfiting” was never the intention.

There’s barely space for albums with modest ambitions like The Volume of Things anymore, given the actual volume of music currently available. Pop-rock like this doesn’t have the same success it did even a few years ago when someone like Ingrid Michaelson crossed over to the Hot 100. It’s accessible, but for a market that may not exist beyond the same stomping grounds as Paper Aeroplanes, barring a Spotify playlist or two. In a crowded industry, being well-written and smart isn’t enough to stand out, even if ideally it should be. Especially right now, it’s difficult for even relatively successful bands to make music full time, so if there was any leeway for Halflight in 2004 or Paper Aeroplanes in 2010, there’s almost none for Bryde in 2020. But there should be an avenue for albums like this to be successful—an unstable industry has made a record this unshowy difficult to make, but if one person connects, Howells has accomplished her mission.

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