(I’m currently on some longer posts for JMU, but in the meantime I thought I’d repost one of my old pieces from Yidwise (my other JM blog) to tide everyone over, and this review of Alex Clare’s most recent album is one I’m particularly proud of. It was originally posted on January 27 of this year, shortly after the album’s American release. Enjoy!)
British singer-songwriter Alex Clare is no stranger to career ups and downs. His first album, The Lateness of the Hour, was a critical and commercial disappointment in the UK. That, combined with Clare – an Orthodox baal t’shuvah – turning down a tour with Adele that fell on Shabbos and High Holidays, caused his label, Island Records, to drop him. Then the album’s single “Too Close” ended up in ads for Internet Explorer 9 and subsequently went double-platinum, convincing the label to quickly re-sign him and give the album a much more successful U.S. release. Then his follow-up, 2014’s Three Hearts, was again disappointingly received (due to lack of label support, according to Clare), charting much lower and earning more mixed reviews.
Understandably, Clare, now a husband and father, felt the need for a change of pace. He left the label for good and moved to Jerusalem in 2015, where he immersed himself in Hasidic teachings. Then he returned to London the following summer, connected with friend Chris Hargreaves of the UK band Submotion Orchestra, and the two set sail on the River Lea in a narrowboat, where they spent several weeks writing and recording songs. The result is Clare’s third effort, Tail of Lions – a Pirkei Avos reference that advocates being a follower of greats rather than a leader of scoundrels. Clare, however, might be ready to do some pretty great leading if this album is any indication.
A common criticism of Clare’s earlier albums was that they overemphasized one element (throbbing dubstep on Hour, glossy folk-pop on Hearts) at the expense of Clare’s own musical identity. By contrast, Tail comfortably incorporates those styles and several others – the spacey trip-hop of “Get Real”, the rousing funk-rock of “Gotta Get Up” and “Surviving Ain’t Living”, the angry arena rock of “Basic” and Open My Eyes” – all while still giving him plenty of sonic room to breathe – and boy, does he. Unfettered by label demands or public expectations, Clare’s performance here is dripping with rawness – not only in his near-ragged voice (undoubtedly an acquired taste for some), but in the emotion he draws out of nearly every track, bringing fury and angst to the rockers and quiet sadness to the ballads with equally chilling impact. If Clare ever was just another British soul singer yelling over techno beats a la John Newman, he thoroughly shatters that image here.
On the lyrical side of things, Clare has obviously outgrown the sordid breakup songs he used to be known for (and which, he has implied, were mostly the label’s idea anyway), so it’s no surprise that this album goes for somewhat deeper subject matter. His faith is a clear and present influence; beyond the album title, “Love Can Heal” quotes Solomon with “There ain’t nothing new under the sun,” while “You’ll Be Fine”, glib title aside, restores crucial context to oft-abused quotes from Rebbe Nachman and the Maharash. Yet rather than settle for blissed-out positivity like many a BT recording artist, Clare is all too willing to show his humanity. “Tell Me What You Need” and “Tired From The Fire” show the ups and downs of a relationship. “Surviving Ain’t Living” and “Gotta Get Up” strike down apathy and conformity. “Basic” defends a troubled man to those who have written him off. And perhaps most boldly, “Open My Eyes” expresses Clare’s frustration over the political chaos in America and the UK in the past year with a level of insight that should appeal to voters of any persuasion. The album’s thematic mission statement seems to be Edmund Burke’s “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This all might sound like heavy stuff, but part of Clare’s genius is keeping everything pretty accessible; only two songs are longer than four minutes, and nearly all of them have a strong hook to get embedded in your brain and easily relatable emotions, ensuring that all of the album’s deep themes go down easy. With his ability to incorporate so many styles and themes while still maintaining a consistent focus, Alex Clare is a revelation for both Jewish music and music in general. If any musician deserves to be a trendsetter, he most certainly does.