Review: Ben Watt ‘Storm Damage’
By SCOTT WILSON
A collection of smart, intimate and precisely crafted songs that confidently cross genres while remaining coherent throughout.
4.5 / 5
Ben Watt’s Storm Damage is a collection of smart, intimate and precisely crafted songs that confidently cross genres while remaining coherent throughout. Completing a trilogy along with 2014’s Hendra and 2016’s Fever Dream, the Everything But The Girl co-songwriter’s fourth solo album broadens his guitar-oriented pop to include a range of instruments, double bass and upright piano amongst them, and collaborators that include Low’s Alan Sparhawk on the album’s centerpiece “Irene.”
From the first notes, Watt’s often-tremulous voice moves between singing and semi-spoken word pieces, luxuriating in details that are so specific that they clearly reference moments and places of personal significance and are all the more effective for that. Too often, pop songs seem to trade in generalizations, leaving room in the absence of concrete references for the listener to insert themselves and find individual meaning through that process. Watt’s songs are the opposite, appearing to be so autobiographical that they invite us to imagine comparable moments in our own lives, yet giving us room to both imagine what he’s telling us and find our own stories as a result.
Watt has always sung about what feel like ordinary lives and their various travails and, from 1983’s North Marine Drive forward, the stories in his songs have become more personal, more specific and, as a consequence, more moving. Lead single “Summer Ghosts” demonstrates this exactly. Inspired by the Japanese tradition that ghosts appear in the summer, the song explores the ways in which bygone experiences continue to resonate long after we think we’ve moved on. The snappy back-and-forth of the lyrics, along with Watt’s own easy storytelling manner, moves quickly over familiar sites of family desperation, as when we’re told that, “My folks were just people with their own shit/ And God knows there was enough of it.” The final verse sees him revisiting the city of Hull where he first met Tracey Thorn of EBTG, noting how the city had changed in the intervening years but still being moved by, as he wrote in Facebook, “the clear scars of economic austerity and my own memories of the place.”
“Figures in the Landscape” is a piano-led ballad, soft harmonies providing a gentle frame for a chorus that combines desperation and hope in the refrain “One more day to live through/ Take a stand/ One more day to live for/ Clap your hands,” the drums and restrained rocking lifting the track into something that, in the best possible way, would bring the lighters out in a stadium. “Balanced on a Wire” continues the exploration of the quiet difficulties in an ordinary life, punctuated by a middle eight that features a gorgeous bass guitar counterpoint to the gently rising swell of the rest of the instrumentation. The jazzy introduction to “Retreat to Find” harks back to EBTG debut Eden and its uniquely pastoral sound, even as the lyrics continue to explore the small details of life while album closer “Festival Song,” written from the perspective of both a festival goer and a crowd watcher, is as much about loneliness as it is about belonging, Delivered by a gentle and melancholy piano motif, it’s another folky ballad that shows just how broad Watt’s songwriting palette has become.
If there’s a consistent thread that holds all of these small, powerful stories together, it’s how we’re all forced to confront ourselves, regardless of where we go or what we become. Watt has produced a cluster of songs that link his songwriting to the very finest of British folk music, singing about nostalgia without falling prey to it, commenting on love and change, time and desire, small successes and ordinary disappointments. The album’s focus, then, is best summed up by the chorus from its first single, where Watt reminds us that “…When you look back you find you haven’t travelled far/ Though you’d changed until reminded who you are/ And every piece of you that you’d volunteered/ Just brings the summer ghosts near.”