Ash clouds, Wikileaks, bankruptcy: Iceland has probably occupied more column inches in the UK press over the past three years than it had done in the previous decade combined. So prominent has it been, it’s easy to forget that it has a population around the same as Croydon. But in the hot water spurting from the ground, the refusal of eighty per cent of the population to rule out the existence of elves and the communal forgoing of surnames, there was always something romantically oddball about the northerly isle, even before it became such a pain in the arse for Western powers.
Across a roster of Sigur Rós, cousins Ólöf and Ólafur Arnalds, Múm and, of course, Björk, ‘interesting’ has become the by-word for their popular musical exports. Queue Karl ‘Kalli‘ Henry. With his second solo effort Last Train Home, he may just be the one man wrecking ball needed to shatter his nation’s hard-earned, out there image. For with his whiney, clichéd, formulaic and staunchly middle-of-the-road album, he’s paradoxically produced perhaps the most unconventional Icelandic release in recent times.
A cursory glance at the tracklisting will let you know what sort of fare’s on offer here. ‘Nothing At All’; ‘This Is Goodbye’; ‘Back To Blue’… Kalli’s clearly been in a bad place. Maudlin, though, need not equal miserable: the lyrics take care of that. By track four, halfway down an A4 page, it was clear that it wasn’t necessary to note down every hackneyed, lazy line on the album, a nod to the worst offenders will suffice.
Couplets like “broke my heart / falling apart” (‘Last Train Home’) are strewn through the album, propped up by Pugwall-esque clangers like “promise I will treat you right / never dreamed I’d find someone like you.” Almost every track comes with a mention of dark clouds or “longing for the morning light” (‘One Step Forward’) but so slack is Kalli’s melancholy, he’s cast as a sullen teen, lurking in the shadows outside the youth club, splashing in shallow puddles.
Last Train Home was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and certainly, there’s a heavy country influence on the album. Most prominent musically are plucked acoustic guitars, omnipresent pedal steel and basic percussion: in the right hands, tools for a fine, contemporary album (see Dylan LeBlanc’s excellent Pauper’s Field from last year). Kalli, though, seems obstinately grounded in the age of the fist-clenching power ballad. The pedal steel is horribly overdone; indeed, on occasion (‘Dark Horse’) it sounds like the Sad Trombone. The violin intro to ’Lullaby’ is more likely to have you jolting up in a cold sweat than nodding off to sleep and the tinny percussion on the title track sounds like a Casio backing track, tuned to Foster and Allen. Musically, this is a sketchy, difficult affair bogged down in melodrama.
Kalli’s voice, too, is trying. Breathy and rasping, at best he sounds like a halfway house between Paul Young and Ronan Keating. At his worst (‘Laurel Canyon’), he’s a chorus of whispering Phil Mitchells, heavily affected and laying on the schmaltz. It’s difficult to find favour with an album that’s so lacking in quality. Gospel-tinged ‘Shine On Me’, which lifts from Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’, is listenable, ‘Back To Blue’ is too. But a few spins of Last Train Home in its entirety is a chore.
Perhaps Kalli thought his jaunt to Tennessee would infuse him with the spirit of Presley, Allman or Hooker. It’s done no such thing. Maybe in future he should look closer to home for inspiration because from here, the only possible way is up.
Written for Drowned in Sound