For her eighth studio album – her first since 2008′s The Jasmine Flower – Bermudian singer-songwriter Heather Nova adopted a somewhat extreme recording process. Working with many of the musicians who contributed to her classic ’90s albums Oyster and Siren, she holed up on the small rocky island she and husband/producer Felix Tod call home and set about making a nostalgic band record powered only by the sun. “Sometimes we would wait all morning ’til the batteries were charged and we could turn the amps on again. Then we would play into the night,” says Nova. The band recorded a song per day for twenty days straight, an experience she describes as “pretty intense, but wonderful”, fighting to get the vocals laid down before the nightly chorus of tree frogs intervened. The result feels appropriately fresh and light, blessed with Nova’s renewed ear for melodic rock and powered by her strong and supple voice.
Instantly recalling the widescreen production style of Siren, the opening one–two punch sets the bar high. Resounding with personality and feeling, ‘Beautiful Ride’ matches pretty vocal harmonies to a driving rhythm and alternately buzzing and reverb-laden guitars, while the melodic clarity of lead single ‘Higher Ground’ allows Nova’s vocal to shine and is perhaps her most radio-ready song since 1998′s ‘London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)’. If Nova weren’t so far removed from the media these days, Radio 2 would likely be all over it. The more vigorous ‘Stop The Fire’, with its assertion that “a change of heart could do us all some good,” is a little less memorable and structurally weaker, but the gorgeous ‘Save A Little Piece Of Tomorrow’ gets the album back on track with its spooky atmospherics, urgent rhythmic pulse, and beautifully wrought – if sinister – melody.
The middle section of 300 Days At Sea is home to some of the album’s key moments, both thematically and musically. Equipped with one of Nova’s most heart-rending melodies and the lurching opening line of “Last time you were here, I lost a baby”, acoustic number ’Everything Changes’ eases its inherent sense of haunting sadness with the optimistic sentiment that “everything changes, changes for the good”, underlining the sense of haunting sadness as the song’s inherent melancholy gradually transforms into something altogether more uplifting. The following ‘Do Something That Scares You’ provides a startling change of pace, with Nova’s rousing lyric, bluesy instrumentation, and sing-speak style (which occasionally recalls Patti Smith or Rickie Lee Jones) moving the album into a surprising, but no less welcome, direction.
The springboard for much of the material on 300 Days At Sea was the discovery on the seabed near Bermuda of the boat, hand-built by her father, that Nova called home throughout her extraordinary childhood, and the salvage of the ship’s compass by a local fisherman, who returned the token to her. It’s from this remarkable backstory that ‘The Good Ship, “Moon”‘ and ‘Turn The Compass Round’ originate, and the two songs together provide the album’s thematic backbone; the former, a gorgeous if a little predictable piano-and-strings ballad, is outshone here by the impassioned bite of the latter with its louder guitars, synth effects and knowing lyrical reference to early single ‘Walk This World’. From there, the album holds just one more standout before reaching its conclusion with the non-descript, all-too-mellow ‘Stay’; ’I'd Rather Be’ is a spare, lusty number that sees Nova reaching into her upper register to impressive effect.
Reconnecting Nova with her past both in and out of the studio, 300 Days At Sea feels like the singer’s most authentic record in years. Though it’s no grand departure musically and fails to maintain a full head of steam right through to the end, the shimmering beauty of much of the material and the band’s palpable belief in their performances ensures the album’s status as another strong entry in the Heather Nova catalogue.
[UK release date TBC]
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