Friday, 6 November 2020

LISTEN: Novo Amor - 'Cannot Be, Whatsoever'

Whilst I fear that my words won't be able to do it justice - especially as I'm trying to write this the day after the announcement of a second lockdown in England, and amidst the uncertainty of, well, everything - it's a huge honour to have been entrusted with an early stream of the new record by Novo Amor. In a way it couldn't be arriving at a better time, for me or the world. Both Ali (the Welsh singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind the moniker) and you, the 'reader', will know how much I adore his music. I think I say that a lot (and it's always true) but sometimes an artist comes along and their music pulls the rug out from under you, transporting you, bringing out those verging-on-obsessive tendencies. For me, Novo Amor is absolutely that artist.

When his debut solo record Birthplace arrived in late 2018, I don't think that I had fallen for a record so hard in a while. I loved others just as much, but for an artist who I had only discovered perhaps weeks previously, the love I had for the record immediately was overwhelming. It became an instant favourite, a bit of a life-raft, an album that I would constantly turn to if I needed some musical comfort, and I still do. I was therefore delighted to be offered the chance by Ali to listen to the new record early. To put it simply, I sit here in my living room writing nice things about the music I enjoy, essentially for a bit of fun, and for that to lead to opportunities like this frankly blows my mind. Even more so when I glance at Ali's Spotify account, where he has over three million (!) monthly listeners currently. Mind-boggling.

In a year where I've only been able to get to a couple of gigs (back in February - Bear's Den and The Hoosiers) I've spent a lot of time feeling super nostalgic towards memories of previous shows. Last June, I volunteered at Bushstock Festival, in the gorgeous church that Ali and his band headlined. To get to watch one of my favourite artists headline at my favourite festival would've been enough, but to meet and look after the band was the icing on the cake. Unsurprisingly, they're the sweetest bunch and made me feel really welcome, before playing an absolutely cracking set. 

Fast forward a year, and Novo Amor returned in June with two brand new tracks, Decimal and Halloween. The stage was set... something was happening. A record? Fans online certainly hoped so. A little bit of teasing ensued and Cannot Be, Whatsoever was announced a few weeks later with the release of Opaline. All three of the singles are sublime. Each unique. They hinted at something sonically a little different to the previous record, as Ali elaborated on in videos shared online... 

You kind of ask, what am I trying to achieve, what is this album about, why am I bothering? And those are questions which you don't ask yourself in the start. It definitely felt like a new era of Novo Amor for me, because it was so different. This new album is just another chapter in the progression of my life, of these moments. As I started making the new album, I kind of remembered why I make music, remembered why I like doing it. It was really exciting. 

This record features the same set of players and influences and that trademark falsetto remains, but the sound and the narrative have progressed naturally, growing alongside Ali. I think that a really formative and important moment in the life of a music fan is when you realise that you don't need to feel really precious about the music that somebody you admire makes. When a band return with a new track and it's a little different, it's often treated as a bad thing, even when the track is great. The latest Mumford & Sons record, for instance, is far from the banjo frenzy that is their debut, but that doesn't take anything away from either. I frankly adore both Novo Amor records, and I bet that this was far more fun to make than heading to the drawing board with Birthplace #2 would've been.

I enjoy the whole thing, I enjoy the challenge, because I keep on going because I want the end result of the album, this body of work that I'm happy with, but as you get more and more audience of course you kind of get a bit more freaked out about what people are gonna think about it, which you can't help [...] people say they make music for themselves but it's hard to kind of have that mindset when you know people are gonna hear it.

It's not always easy to make sense of these thoughts or know how far your reach will extend. Sounds and ideas become scatterings of shapes and patterns that need to be grasped, pulled closer and nurtured, the process can feel like a mess. But I think it's good to allow these things to clutter, to become the mess that you then have to work to refine. The thought that you can create things that affect people so fiercely out of thin air can really overwhelm.  

While Ali's lyrics are usually left to our interpretation and I don't have a press release, or indeed any technical musical knowledge with which to throw fancy words at you, I can do what I always do - try to spread love for the music that I love. This records falls into that category entirely. After receiving it a couple of months ago, it sat in my inbox for a couple of weeks before I had the chance to sit and take my first proper listen. I knew that I would need the time to take it in properly. Since then I've smugly listened, over and over, finding new parts to marvel at on every listen. A new lyric which stops me in my tracks, a stunning violin part. There is so much intricate detail to unpick, and a whole lot to love. 

I love (and I'm not sure I've used that word enough yet... are you starting to get the gist?) the track Halloween. The lyric "I miss my friends that I pretend I don't need, but I could've done with them this week" gets me every time. With another lockdown looming this is such a relatable sentiment. From the title at least, No Plans also feels particularly topical at the moment. It's my favourite track from the record, I think. But don't tell the others. The 'drop' a couple of minutes in was such a surprise on my first listen, but a really really superb one. The vocal and the sudden cacophony of instrumentation in this track feel like a sudden unleashing of energy, of raw emotion. It fills me with fire for those few minutes, before immediately contrasting with the much more delicate Birdcage and Keep Me, two really tender tracks. The record has a lot of contrast at its heart, which I think reflects some of the process of making it, detailed in Ali's recent social post, with some admirably honest thinking: 

months down the line the record grew this backbone of indecision, jumping from feelings of self-affirmation to self-pity, from joy and celebration to feelings of boredom and anxiety. It's not something I really wanted, but those feelings naturally manifested themselves within what I was creating. I think that spectrum of emotion appropriately mirrors how it feels to make an album, at least for me anyway. It's a mess and can cause a lot of grief. It gives you life, then drags it back out of you. It gives you happiness, the best days, the worst days, and makes you question your purpose and abilities. These words feel unnecessarily dramatic when describing nine months of just making music, but hey, that's how it feels.  

I could likely ramble more, but you should probably just go and listen to the record. It means an awful lot to me and I'm so excited for everybody to hear it. I know that it will come to mean a lot to those millions of listeners around the world, and to those who are yet to discover Ali's music. You've got a lot to look forward to if that's you. A teeny bit envious. 

If the world has fixed a little by then, Ali is touring all over the place from next April, with some UK shows including London's Barbican. Huge! Tickets and dates for it all, and for something exciting to put into your calendar beyond the weekly grocery trip, are here.

Check out the new record on streaming services/Ali's store here.

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