Listening to Last Night on Earth, the third long player from London’s Noah and the Whale, you’d be hard pressed to find any traces of the same band that made 2009’s The First Days of Spring. Bruised, battered, and defeated from his failed relationship with folk singer Laura Marling, frontman Charlie Fink used that album as a vehicle for examining the crestfallen psyche known to set in on the heels of just about every maudlin breakup. Thankfully, Fink balanced out the pity party with songs about rebirth and redemption, embodied by lyrics that referenced both the vernal equinox and the blue skies above. Billy Idol essentially said the same thing in “White Wedding” when he proffered that it might be “a nice day to start again,” but Fink lacked Billy’s panache; even as he sang about hope being in every seed, and there being no need for despair, our boy sounded fantastically lachrymose.
I’m not sure anyone was looking for a histrionic epilogue to match the intensity of the main act, but it’s dubious that Noah and the Whale’s fanbase was expecting Last Night on Earth, either – a reinvention so extreme that at times, it feels more like a ruse. Where the band’s first two records (The First Days of Spring and 2008’s Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down) soared on a perfect mix of fractured folksy beauty and tempered indie earnestness, Last Night on Earth prefers to coast on a trite electropop blueprint so slick you could practically lose your footing. That’s not to suggest it’s unlistenable – far from it, in fact. The record sounds tailored for mass consumption, which means every song packs a melodic doozie and indomitably contrived storylines about soldiering on while our world threatens to spin off its axis.
The opening trio of songs sets the new Noah template with succinct immediacy. Fred Abbott’s synth and keyboard timbres dominate “Life Is Life,” a cut that also includes heavily processed guitar riffs, Fink’s derivative lyrics (“And it feels like his new life can start”), and a Last Night on Earth stock-in-trade – anthemic group singalongs during the chorus. “Tonight’s the Kind of Night” plays like a sham despite its propulsive, surging nature; feeling duped is the only logical sentiment when a band this talented patronizes its listeners with a copped riff from Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” pairs a towering drum beat and chiming guitar melodies with lyrics both ubiquitous (“You’ve got heart / and you’re going your own way”) and timeless (“She’s a rock and roll survivor with pendulum hips”) in pop music.
The situation doesn’t improve much after this. Marimba melodies and a vaguely New Wave atmosphere coalesce on “Give it All Back,” a track that seems to be pulling its imagery pretty liberally from Byran Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” – “Living out in the suburbs / planning my escape / I grew my hair to my shoulders / formed a band with a couple of friends.” “Just Me Before We Met” is an uncomfortable amalgamation of Tom Hobden’s violin melodies, faux-harpsichord tones, bass-heavy synths, and halfhearted platitudes from Fink: ““Don’t be shy / be a brave little champion.” More themes of breaking out and starting anew are present on “Waiting for My Chance to Come,” a perfectly pleasant song that, simmering electronics notwithstanding, would’ve been right at home with Into the Great Wide Open-era Tom Petty.
Perhaps more so than its overt poppy-ness and banal song structures, the biggest conundrum presented on Last Night on Earth is Noah and the Whale’s unapologetic utilization of electronic textures. Nothing suggests greater vulnerability in music than a world-weary voice and an acoustic guitar, but the group seems to have performed a 180, right past the fragile folk and wistful twee pop of their first two LP’s, and into the often sterile and unaffecting terrain of 1980’s synthpop. The approach all but destroys numbers like the closer, “Old Joy,” where laser beam electronics and synthesizer squiggles seem stridently misplaced amongst the weighty echo of the piano’s block chords and an all-female chorus.
It’s unlikely that Charlie Fink was deliberately speaking to his audience on “Old Joy” when he sings, “There is more in the world to be found,” but it’s still hard not to heed his words. If anything, I probably could’ve saved myself 33 minutes here if had I tuned in a little closer during “My Door Is Always Open,” the final cut from The First Days of Spring, where Fink’s laconic moan reminds us that, “I will only let you down.”