Charlie Simpson - Young Pilgrim
Record Label: CSM Records
Release Date: August 15th, 2011
The album title for Charlie Simpson's debut solo full-length, Young Pilgrim, seems in hindsight to be both an accurate and fitting selection when you take into account the expansive journey this musician has already embarked upon. From his teenage years within Busted where he learned to construct simplistic powerchords and intertwine them with enormous, hook-laden choruses, to then finally finding fulfillment and unwavering passion in Fightstar; a band where he transformed his sound in an entirely new direction into one of post hardcore aggression glazed with subtle melodic and harmonic undertones. It's a journey in itself to begin writing chart topping pop songs before realizing how unsatisfied the music in which you're creating is making one feel, and so for the next seven years he spent every minute and every elapsing second of every individual day overcoming obstacles that resulted from making the painstaking transition from idolized pop musician into a well respected post hardcore artist. Normally a transition of that magnitude would be enough, but it seems the journey is set to continue with the release of Simpson's debut full-length as a solo artist, Young Pilgrim. A record inspired by classic, influential and timeless singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne and Elliott Smith. This twelve-track effort sees Simpson once again overhaul his sound into a beautiful blend of folk, acoustic and pop, while also implementing rich harmonies, absorbing melodies, thoughtfully constructed lyrics, and the clarity of luscious instrumentation to wonderful effect.
The album opens in classy vintage warmth with lead single "Down Down Down", a tune that does a splendid job of painting an accurate representation as to what listeners should expect to hear throughout Young Pilgrim's forty-five minute duration. However, it's "Parachutes" that provides the first highlight of the release with its gorgeous textures and lovely musical atmosphere that it's able to conjure. The track explodes out of the gates with pulsating drum and snare beats before entwining with fluctuating piano notes and rhythmic guitar chords to create a lovely up-tempo and positive opening verse. It isn't long before Simpson's moody vocal delivery enters into proceedings, creating a compelling contrast when in context with the light instrumentation that his voice floats upon with elegant precision. However, the chorus is where things begin to soar with momentum, grace and conviction. An audible gospel choir provides countless layered harmonies deep in the background, melodies waltz and weave atop of high rising four-part vocals, and Simpson eventually allows his voice to blossom as he sings with a noticeable amount of tension, regret and stubbornness, "I'm so sorry for the pain, sorry for the aches, sorry for the moods I'm swinging / but I don't need your hand, I don't need your heart, I don't need a parachute". As the track progresses you can hear barely audible shouts deep in the mix that further heighten the stirring atmosphere that "Parachutes" creates; and in creating such vivid imagery, Simpson has penned a three and a half minute stunner that wanders swiftly through the overpopulated streets of introspection.
"All At Once" continues the momentum that its predecessor established by once again entangling drumbeats, tip-toeing piano chords and a combination of dual electric and acoustic guitars to create a cinematic sequence. Simpson sings above skiffle beats with flair and a new found sense of confidence as he tells a heart wrenching tale of loneliness and loss. "I would not expect you to understand it / 'cause things never turned out the way we planned it / I just hoped that I would know you and I would never have to walk this world alone". For returning fans, you're awaited by a newly reworked version of "Thorns", a track that glides along beautifully with the assistance of twinkling minor key piano notes and a striking yet repetitive tempo. A dozen lower, higher and middle range vocal harmonies blend together seamlessly in what becomes a harmonious bridge just moments before Simpson launches himself into a cascading chorus of vulnerability, "please don't take this broken heart of mine / it's the only beat that I have left that's pulsing through this empty chest / and I don't know where I should begin". And with that, a tempo that once seemed mellow, and instrumentation that initially seemed welcoming is permanently tainted with remnants of unrequited sorrow.
As Young Pilgrim wanders into its middle stages we're treated to the rollicking album highlight "Cemetery", a sentimental shuffle that serves the all important purpose of reflecting on the joys of youthful exuberance and back to a time when everything seemed simple. It's driven by thick double bass and features tantalizing elements of folk, pop and punk that surprisingly blend together flawlessly. During the opening verse Simpson switches between deeper and lower registered notes before exploding unexpectedly during certain sections as though he's attempting to pull the tempo quicker than it's willing to go. There are a number of minor imperfections that were wisely left in the final recording in order to highlight authenticity, and it succeeds in capturing lovely moments where Simpson's commanding vocals are placed under strain, resulting in vocals cracking on the brink of an overwhelming collapse as he shouts, "We never made it to the start of the race / I guess I thought that in the end we would be saved / if there's somebody in the sky looking down on me".
Renowned string arranger, Audrey Riley, lends her assistance during the one-two punch of "Hold On" and "I Need A Friend Tonight" , a couple of lovely selections when it comes to slowing the tempo down adequately. The former of the two tracks sees Simpson experimenting with his vocals by at times even singing with upwards of five of his own overdubs. Having half a dozen vocals weaving in and out of the mix at any one time captures an intriguing element in that there's so much to hear, there's so much imagery that is able to be evoked, and those vocal harmonies at times are inadvertently used as their own instrument which is a lovely touch. "I Need A Friend Tonight" is built upon the foundation of Christianity, but for those who may be weary, it never threatens to dominate proceedings and it even takes a distant backseat. Instead, the lyrics are reflective and offer insight into how one perceives themselves and the journey that's currently being undertaken, while also looking toward religion for answers and guidance. "I've been walking down these streets alone / twenty-four years of mindless games and I still can't find home".
One slight negative that must be noted is "The Farmer and His Gun", a pleasant tune that incorporates dashing harmonica solos and a country-like vibe has been left untouched since it was first introduced on When We Were Lions, Simpson's debut EP. It merely seems to have been plucked from the aforementioned release without a semblance of change which is disappointing. Alas, it's a lovely track but unfortunately it disrupts the flow and overall cohesiveness of the album. Fortunately the album ends much in the same manner as it all started with Simpson collaborating with Ivor Novello winning songwriter, Lain Archer on the melancholic "If I Lose It", and ending the album in truly stunning fashion with "Riverbanks". To put the latter track into any sort of context, think "Lost" but with ten times the amount of passion and urgency. The strings return, but this time more prominent than ever, the vocals are spectacular, and during yet another soaring chorus, listeners are treated to a string driven crescendo before the final minute of the track plays out in a cinematic post-rock oriented climax. The final words uttered are a desperate plea to, "please don't break these riverbanks" before the instrumentation is gradually swallowed up by impenetrable silence.
Whether you've read through the entirely of this review, or whether you've merely skimmed across the surface and scrolled down to read this final paragraph for a decisive conclusion, it must be said that Young Pilgrim is undoubtedly the finest accomplished of Charlie Simpson's music career to date. It's indeed worthy of the overwhelming amount of praise that's just now been bestowed upon it, and if these words you're currently reading succeed in doing anything - let it be that they get you curious enough to listen. You may very well discover your album of the year.
Just kidding, I read it all. I agree that your writing style is almost poetic. Almost lyric-like in itself. Pretty good review, been wondering when it would be posted. From what I've heard I can definitely agree with the score on this one. Already my AOTY :)
I agree that your writing style is brilliant. I do think, however, that you could make use of a pair of slightly sharper editing scissors. The beautiful writing is a little lost in an abundance of adjectives and your sentences sometimes wander off track. I think you could have cut the length of the review significantly without losing any of the power of your observations quite easily.
I'll definitely be listening to the album now, though.
the demos, the EPs, the covers (his wheat cover is flawless) all make me so exited to finally hear the full length. Been a Fightstar fan since 'They Liked You Better...' was picked up by Deep Elm. Anything Charlie puts effort into becomes gold.
I promised a lengthy review, so there you go! Make sure you listen/purchase on August 15th because it's spectacular.
Now I agree with most of what you said in the review, but man...tone it down a notch. You're trying extremely hard to utilize colorful language and descriptors for everything, and to be honest, it's just overwhelming for most readers. It reaches the point of pontification. You misuse long words and punctuation, and often write completely redundant phrases such as "consider and picture this," "appeared and seemed," and "continues and maintains." I'm all for reviewing good music, but I'm also a big believer in careful brevity. I feel like you've alienated a lot of your would-be readers by bombarding them with unnecessarily pretentious language and awkward, over-the-top syntax. Extracting the base intentions of this review actually reveals some very sweet and well thought out sentiments. Everything could have been said in half the space. But it was tough to make it past the first few sentences. Sorry dude. I don't mean to be such a negative Nancy! I just figured that you are likely an aspiring writer and wouldn't mind some constructive pointers on how this review could be a difficult read for the average Joe/Jane perusing the site. It's awesome that you loved the record because I am 95% sure that it will be my ROTY.