There comes a time when most of us have to admit that the lessons our parents tried to impart on us so emphatically were perhaps more astute than would be suggested by the rolled teenage eyes they were met with. Would we have been more inclined to listen if the advice was delivered as a piece of musical art? Paul Janeway, frontman of southern soul eight-piece St Paul and The Broken Bones, will have to report back in 18 years and let us know.
Following in the footsteps of Aristotle and Steinbeck, Paul wrote the band’s new album, Angels in Science Fiction, as a series of letters to his unborn child upon finding out that his wife was pregnant.
It’s a fitting vantage point from which to view the record. The psychedelic suspension that runs throughout does give the sense of floating, whether through the endless space of a great science fiction novel or, perhaps more aptly here, amniotic fluid: sounds delivered by muffled frequency, lessons delivered as lullabies.
From opening track, ‘Chelsea’, he impresses his urge for finding meaning. “Trees were just lumber until we built a home”, he sings, “stars were just dead planets ‘til you gave them life”. Paul frequently finds connections with home – both the land and what humans have made of it. ‘Oporto-Madrid Blvd’ and ‘City Federal Building’ are references to real places in the band’s home of Birmingham, Alabama.
On the former, the nature of our physical earth and our innate selves battles outside influences, drawing a clever parallel between trees being pruned to make way for power lines, and the way we ourselves are cut down by society. The latter is an antidote, urging the listener to stand resolute and protect the divine within, never letting them see you smile or cry, and making sure you “don’t let them take your Holy Ghost”.
‘Sea Star’ evokes Alabama’s Gulf Coast, with its imagery of oil in the ocean and the diminishing green trees, reminding us that for every time we’re washed up, we can just as easily be washed back out again, to the life of the “ocean’s groove”. The sinister and mysterious ‘Heat Lightning’ wonders whether you can ever escape the shadow of your own parents.
These lessons may be timeless, but the sound is modern and sophisticated, made for late night rooftop bars and jazz cafes, with its traffic-sounding brass and its dusky, hypnotic strings. In fact, it all has that whooshing, hyper-speed feel of a time-lapsed cityscape as it changes from day to night – or, perhaps in Paul’s case, as he changes from childless to parent.
Closing track ‘Marigold’ gives a name to his daughter and a voice to future conversations as he tells her sadly “I don’t want you to be alone, but I gotta go, I’ve got a show”. Time will tell how the apology goes down with its intended recipient. For the listener, we’re glad to be here now with Paul and the band as they rock us through our own reckonings.