Whatever happened to Madchester? Listen to northern sad-men MONEY and you’d think it never even happened. All mournful wails, plaintive piano and glacial tempo, The Shadow of Heaven is a far cry from the drug-fuelled funk chaos of the likes of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Gone is the blissful euphoria of the 90s and in is the slow-burning sadness of the recession hit teens.
It’s fortunate then that the quality of the music on Shadow of Heaven remains as strong as its forefathers – the prospect of listening to a band weep that ‘Even ghosts must raise their hands, just to stare into the gloom’(Christ) whilst accompanied by anything other than the most shimmering of shimmery guitar and choral of pained choirboy vocals is almost as depressing as some of MONEY’s cheerier efforts.
Album centrepiece Goodnight London is not one of those efforts. Relentlessly desolate and so stultifyingly slow-burning that stars live and die in the time it takes for them to convey that they’re a bit sad, it’s fortunately as bad as it gets. The rest of the album, although still sparse, fills the space with a sound reminiscent of Simple Minds, The Smiths, or even some melodramatic U2, after being told that everything they’ve ever loved will die and they’ll have to watch.
There’s been plenty of bands before that have gone for this same kind of quietly beautiful indie rock funeral dirge, but so often they mistake sadness and contemplation for emotionlessness and the kind of hollow, pretty nothingness that MONEY keep at bay with guitars as fragile as glass, but as sharp too, and powerful vocal performances from frontman Jamie Lee. The vocals, channeling his inner New Romantic, are restrained and pained when they need to be, but MONEY are unafraid of injecting some roughness and theatricality in the name of emotion too.
They’re also careful to balance the gloom with the lighter stuff, just so it all doesn’t get too much. Songs like Hold Me Forever swell to a defiant swansong that, juxtaposed with the delicacy and quiet poise of their slower stuff, makes for powerful, uplifting music. Hearing him proclaim that ‘Heaven is real, Heaven is here‘ is spine-tingling stuff in the vein of vinatge Bono or Ian McCulloch for even the most apathetic of agnostics.
It’s the kind of careful, tightrope walk song crafting that you wouldn’t expect from a debut effort. The airy, the gloomy, the anthemic and the dread-filled (or all at once in the case of the epic, slow-building dissonance of Cold Water), are balanced brilliantly with surprising lyrical maturity (I think we may even have a concept album on our hands – something about God dying or something equally grim and sad) to create an album that only rarely lets its grip slip – and really only goes from strength to strength.
In many ways it’s a very familiar album – rooted in the kind of romantics and jangle-y desolation that seemed the byword of every British band in the mid-80s – but something about it stands out. It has the cold, choral sound that’s become so vogue among new-New Romantics like James Blake, but the sincerity, power and passion of its forefathers. Together the two make a distinctly British mix of the moody and the joyous that rescues the album from ponderousness or pretension.
Haunting, beautiful, and quietly invigorating, The Shadow of Heaven is one of the most artfully crafted albums I’ve heard all year – and possibly the strongest debut to boot – and hints at a band with the potential to be one of the next big things in rock in the UK.