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Westerman - Your Hero Is Not Dead Music Album Reviews

The British songwriter’s excellent debut mines the gentle and detailed sounds of soft rock’s past, while his lucid yet uncomplicated lyrics interrogate the uncertainty of the present.

On Your Hero Is Not Dead, Will Westerman creates gentle music made up of elements from experimental pop albums. Talk Talk is an obvious influence (the hero alluded to in the album’s title refers to the band’s late vocalist Marc Hollis), but so are folk musicians like John Martyn and Joni Mitchell. Martyn’s synthesizer explorations led to his 1977 album One World, and Mitchell’s 1985 record Dog Eat Dog combined hypnotic production and lyrics in service of pop prophecies of doom. With the help of Nathan Jenkins, aka producer Bullion, Westerman achieves a synthesis of these previous experiments, fusing together whimsical curiosity and technical proficiency. Over a backdrop made of the sounds of the past, his lucid yet uncomplicated lyrics interrogate the uncertainty of the present.

When Westerman asks, “Am I taking it too far?” on “The Line,” it feels like he is questioning a choir made up of himself; later in the song, he engages in a one-man call and response. Bullion’s production matches Westerman’s ambivalence. “The Line” takes several detours before returning to its original route; it is music prone to glitches. A distended guitar opens the track and floats around Westerman’s ruminations, which are both concrete and fantastical. The soundworld recalls the work of ’80s producer Thomas Dolby, full of small changes that lead to strange moments: a voice stretched at the beginning of the bar is suddenly paired with bongos; a cut-up chorus is utilized as the backbeat to a new lyric. It’s like hearing Westerman question himself in real time. These alterations don’t overwhelm the central contemplation; instead, they make what could be a simple chord-strummer into a revelation. When a small guitar solo appears halfway through, it calls attention to itself through its sheer normality.

Westerman’s voice functions as a guide. Take “Easy Money,” an energetic, angry kiss-off to someone or something. Its opening swirl of guitar and synth dissipates once Westerman finally says, “I don’t doubt/Somebody’s working harder now.” His words are mirrored by a drum machine and the suggestion of a guitar. As the aggression grows, so does the anxiety; beeps appear and disappear, while a synthetic clatter threatens to overtake his voice. At moments, Westerman slows down and repeats a phrase like “stay still” or “that’s enough,” allowing the machinery of the production to whirl around him. The electronic interruptions can be traced back to Martyn’s One World, and the vocal percussion wouldn’t sound out of place on New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies. Yet the tossed-off lyricism and world-weary contempt are all Westerman.

On the album closer and title track, Westerman melds the cast-off nature of his songwriting to the bric-a-brac of Bullion’s production. The instrumentation hovers around his guitar playing; it’s the album’s clearest folk song and his most direct statement. The basic structure and lyrics sound as though they were improvised in the back of a van, close to the end of a tour: “Busy working/Busy avoiding.” Bullion pairs Westerman’s rumination with subtle production, isolating piano notes, throttling synths, and gently doubling the chorus. Mutual devotion to perennially out-of-vogue styles has allowed Bullion and Westerman to create an album that sounds novel; the beauty they make is secondhand and stumbled upon. It’s a product of obsession that can be engaged without knowing all the references; it sounds good, sometimes even better than its antecedents. Bullion’s production reworks elements from ’80s AOR records; Westerman creates songs out of leftover sentences. Their music proposes that the judgments of yesterday aren’t written in stone, and that what we believe today is only as stable as we think it is.

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