On his mystical debut Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm, Benjamin Francis Leftwich asserted himself as a different, more nuanced breed of singer-songwriter: one that went beyond the apparent influence of Surfjan Stevens, Bon Iver and Nick Drake and lined his confessionals with an undertone of the ominous. Though soft and gentle in nature, his songs would sport lyrics that occasionally cut to the core, as he flirted with an anxiety that was omnipresent in between fleeting moments of intimate ecstasy. Five years later, Leftwich’s sophomore effort comes at long last and despite, even perhaps as a result, of the passing of his father due to cancer – and given his previous output, it’s a curiously uplifting listen.
Album opener Tilikum starts the album out much like its predecessor – dark and warm, with a descending bass string reminiscent of drops of water, perhaps an allegory of the title After The Rain and the disarray he’s escaping in this album. Tilikum is the name of a famous orca and protagonist of the polemic documentary Blackfish and suitably mirrors a song about runaway wife “running out of hell”.
Some Other Arms and She Will Sing change the tone into a warmer, more expansive replacement to his trademark ambivalent melancholy. At first, this overt sense of elation feels a tad uncharacteristic, even bizarre to the point of being unconvincing. He seems more accepting and selfless when it comes to past relations, which makes you wonder if this comes from genuine nonchalance and contented growth or from resignation and utter defeat (you wonder whether the voice in Kicking Roses is that of the protagonist’s lover or their own conscience, accusing them of emotional aloofness). It’s not until Summer that the newfound optimism stops feeling saccharine and allows one to get a feel for his recent plight. It exposes the underlying hurt that has propelled this scurry to the surface, by way of sunny finger-picking and opening line “it started with the beating of a frozen winter heart”, which somewhat encapsulates his personal trials.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich has never shied away from addressing issues of substance in the past, such as drugs, religion and loss, and nowhere is this more evident than in album centrepiece Cocaine Doll – an explicit title to a subtle song which showcases Leftwich’s mastery of the soft and dark, the point at which he’s at his best. Whether he’s referring to sobriety or surrendering to addiction, the “doll” in question yearns to be set free, imploring him “please / for me / I need you to be swimming in the sad, free sea / with me”. It seems that for her, relief comes in the form of letting go and acquiescing to the whim of her destructive desires; this way, she could flow without resistance – an aquatic theme representing freedom is very prominent his music. The same character and sentiment is featured in Day By Day, which starts with the groan of a guitar strap on wood and stars the killer couplet “I wasn’t the only one loving you when you fell to the floor / looking up, you said ‘what a view, I want to dive in it all’”. The fact that her appeal is so compelling and inviting harks back to the moral ambivalence of his first album.
There’s no clear reference to his father’s death until the arresting Groves – a show-stopping ode to his father as he is on his deathbed. It could easily be mistaken for a love song by the casual listener – but upon realisation, it stops you cold in your tracks with its poignancy. In Immortal and Mayflies, we see a clear hike in production and hook generosity (the latter is introduced by a near-psychedelic sampling), agreeing with the general trend of more catchy, less subtle song writing – whose virtues become apparent after a few listens. In the former, great lyrics such as “I make my peace with the moon as the party ends” and an interesting, unconventional chord progression in chorus which harks back to 90’s alternative rock, twinned with the astute addition of backing vocals, gives it an expansive feel which speaks for the time-slowing quality of his music.
The album wraps up in a low-key manner, with pastoral folk number Frozen Moor and ephemeral coda Just as I Was Waking Up, in which he dissuades a lover from leaving with the last words of the album being “Amy, please kill the light…” - the sudden finish and implicit naughtiness gives a sense of continuity yet to come, which is a masterful way to complete an album of restless optimism.
In truth, this is an album of unabated relief, and despite his new gleeful tone requiring some getting used to, the warmth of the songs shine through upon repeated listening. It could be said that the track listing could have done with better arrangement so as to show a more discernible personal arch and story. Nevertheless, perhaps its messy feeling and awkward ending makes a point of reflecting the cocktail of emotions that follows one’s emergence from grief. Taken as a whole it is a compelling piece of work, bolstering Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s status as one of the most intimate, absorbing and ambitious singer songwriters in Britain today.