Since becoming European Capital of Culture in 2008, Liverpool has seen an extraordinary amount of development. While it seems like a gleaming example of what a 21st century city should be, flautist, one time member of Euros Childs’ band and Liverpool native Laura J Martin felt disconnected to the city she called home. So, on her third album On The Never Never, she tackles this alienation head-on. Recorded in Nashville alongside Matt Swanson of Lambchop, Tony Crow, and featuring Silver Jews’ Brian Kotzur on drums, The Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison on guitar and even a guest vocal from poet Benjamin Zephaniah, On The Never Never channels Martin’s disillusionment into ten universal tales while also being her most musically rich record to date.
‘A Deliberate Man’ introduces Martin’s distinctive voice immediately, but its country twang is instantly offset by ‘Do It,’ which marries Martin’s nagging flute and twinkling synths with a reggae rhythm. It shouldn’t work, but the gradual introduction of each element to form a deeply layered climax is arresting. The 80s-inflected synth returns on ‘I Can’t Bear To Feel Myself Forgotten,’ which might be the album’s most lyrically intriguing track. Though not explicit, Martin’s mournful drone on the chorus and her observations during the verses may well be a comment on contemporary society’s desire to be constantly connected.
There are many times where Martin reveals her penchant for quirky structures. ‘It’s A Stumper’ takes the song’s title literally with Martin’s vocal performance, getting deliberately stuck on the chorus and driving home the message about the difficult decisions of modern life. It’s a trick she returns to on the title track, repeating the same bar of music in quick succession, giving a very convincing imitation of a broken record. The way Martin weaves a tale of financial troubles and run-down estates across a ludicrously jaunty melody is masterly.
‘Green Grey Grim’ is almost three songs in one. Its verses sound like a missing Regina Spektor but the pretty piano is abandoned in favour of luscious harmonies during the chorus. It ends with flamenco guitar and Martin’s flute, turning the song into a waltz that could soundtrack a screwball comedy and perfectly echoing the playfulness and quick wit of Kate Bush on Never For Ever.
However, On The Never Never’s structure lets it down. While every song on the record can undoubtedly stand on its own two feet, they feel weaker when listened to as a single unit. The album is frontloaded with synths, beats and guitars, while the second half is more temperately paced, adopting more pianos and traditional songwriting structure. ‘My Landing Place,’ while undoubtedly beautifully constructed, feels misplaced sandwiched in-between the humour and observations of ‘It’s A Stumper’ and ‘Nowhere Else.’
This structural question mark doesn’t detract too much from the numerous gorgeous songs that make up On The Never Never. It may have been inspired by feelings of estrangement but it’s difficult not to connect with Martin’s musical vision.