It was a conscious effort for Lawrence Arabia, a.k.a James Milne, to create something “comparatively ponderous” after the success of his hook-laden second album, 2009’s Chant Darling. While the same pop sensibilities are present on Milne’s newest release, The Sparrow, everything is just a bit more gloomy and uncomfortable. Even his humorous tracks carry an inherent sadness to them, with the weeping strings and muddled horns completely altering the perception of the lyrics. If this album were a film, it would undoubtably be categorized as “black comedy” on Netflix.
“Traveling Shoes” opens the album with a ‘50s inspired ode to getting out of a shitty town. “It feels like there’s only two sane people and they’re leaving soon,” croons the New Zealand native as he documents his uniquely styled character, and introduces both sounds (heavy stings and piano) and themes (boredom, depression, displacement) that continue throughout the rest of the album. The same semi-fictitious character makes his shameful return home on “The 03,” the companion piece to “Traveling Shoes.” In a perfect example of Milne’s odd sense of humor, he takes a traditionally pop soundtrack and combines it with lyrics like, “Come point and laugh at the failure as I’m moping around the bus exchange, counting out $2.80 change to get a bus to my mom’s house.” You don’t know whether to dance or to cry. Or both.
And then there’s “Bicycle Riding.” Never has a bike ride on an “ideal day” felt more overwhelmingly melancholic, as Milne sighs, “Nothing changes,” and, “I’ve seen it all before,” while a sluggish piano line drags itself along for the journey. Milne is a clever songwriter, but it’s obvious that his heart is in the arrangements. “Dessau Rag,” the lone instrumental track serves as a playground for Milne’s musical imagination, as he morphs a classic folk guitar opener into something lumbering and awkward by inserting an endearingly clumsy trombone and slightly off-kilter keys, topped with a clarinet and cloudy trumpet duet to create something slightly psychopathic.
Even within all the doom and gloom, Milne still manages to crack out some great hooks on tracks like album closer “Legends.” “Legends” is carried by beautifully sharp and attention-grabbing strings, similar in style to Sondre Lerche. The arrangement and composition of the track are unlike anything else on the album, with the piano and vocal lines sounding like something Elton John, John Lennon and DeBussy would have written together. It reaches the sought-after balance between pop and depression, which is an ongoing battle throughout the album. But if “Legends” is anything to go by, Milne is definitely on the right track to figuring out just where he wants to be in the spectrum between a struggling, thoughtful artist and a pop hook-maker.