John Nolan – Height

John Nolan - Height

John Nolan - Height

Having done time as the front man for both Taking Back Sunday and Straylight Run, songwriter John Nolan has decided to break free and go the route of the solo artist. His first proper full length – fresh on the heels of Straylight Run’s About Time EP – finds Nolan digging through the vault and emerging with several songs that balance the volatile emo-pop of his first band with the wistful indie rock of his more recent outfit.

Though Height benefits tremendously from Nolan’s knack for penning memorable melodies and sophisticated arrangements, the album’s ten songs don’t exactly delve into unprecedented sonic territory; most of the tunes carry the same glossy pop sheen as the bands that were spawned by Taking Back Sunday’s breakthrough into the mainstream some five years ago. And true to emo’s ethos, there’s no shortage of lyrics here that read just like the sappy musings of love-struck adolescents: heavy on both self-deprecation and regret. Yet if none of these detractors are of concern to you, you’ll likely be more than content with Nolan’s acoustic guitar and piano driven soul bearing.

“The End of the Beginning” is exactly what its title implies: a transient collage of blips, drones, and backmasking effects that sounds like something more substantive coming unraveled. This soundscape segues directly into “Til It’s Done to Death,” which begins with a deliberately strummed acoustic guitar before being overtaken by an unexpectedly epic drumbeat and delay enhanced ambience. Vocally, Nolan is more defiant than whiny here as he sings, “Hold your tongue, boy / hold onto your breath / it’s not done till it’s done to death.”

“It Takes a Long Time” exhibits some of Nolan’s strongest aural signatures on Height, namely the amalgamation of folksy coffeehouse rock and Postal Service style electronica. In what seems to be a retrospective reflection of bad decisions made, Nolan sets the groove with heavy bass drum, acoustic guitar arpeggios, swirling synths, and the occasional piano plink. The layers get thicker and heavier until all that remains is a solitary guitar and Nolan’s remorseful voice singing, “I’m constantly defining my inhibitions.” Sadly, the track never reaches the epic heights implied by its tension-building verse. Other songs that feature this electro-acoustic hybrid include the industrial-sized “Screaming into the Wind” and anti-climactic closer “Not to Let Go.”

Height’s most satisfying moments are also often the most puzzling. There’s a fairly unimaginative but nonetheless entertaining cover of the Primitive Radio Gods’ 1996 hit “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand,” which goes a bit heavier on the piano than the original and finds Nolan interjecting his own vocals where B.B. King’s sample (“I’ve been downhearted, baby!”) used to be. “Here I Am,” with its hopes of starting fresh, sounds at first like Depeche Mode in lounge mode before veering into a Trey Anastasio-inspired psychedelic guitar jam. There’s also heavy exploitation of dynamic contrast, with soft and tender moments suddenly yielding to intense swells in volume. It’s a cliché move, but damn if it doesn’t feel good anyway.

Regardless, Height is an overall lackluster project that ultimately feels like a superfluous addition to John Nolan’s otherwise impressive back catalogue, unlikely to capture any long term interest from the previously uninitiated but certain to send the most hardcore of fans back to a more fulfilling Straylight Run or Taking Back Sunday record.