As Depeche Mode did in the 80s, Gabriel Bruce is a borderline figure that, despite indulging in synths and dreamy electro samples, explores a world filled of sleepless nights, sex and death: “I got this feeling I were dead”. Indeed, the lyrics are undoubtedly the strongest feature of the release, ranging from Hamlet references (‘Dark Lights, Shine Loud’), life metaphors to inner spiritual philosophy: “What’s a little death in the scheme of survival/ I know that it’s true because I read in the bible.”
As a plus, such sensual and charming baritone vocals, more than once compared to the triad Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, enchant the listener, while creating a deeper and haunting layer, that goes beyond the indie-disco hits like ‘Cars Not Leaving’. Whether he’s whispering lost in a lustful courtship in ‘Zoe’, or screaming at the top of his ferocious, growling voice in ‘Sermon on the Mount’, he tugs at the emotional heart-strings, almost fooling us into thinking that those tacky poppy hits in the background do not really exist.
The hypnotic repetitions of ‘Sleep Paralysis’ conveys the immobility that happens in the space between sleep and wakefulness (“I’ve got this feeling that we’re dead and there’s nothing more”) before bursting into a full Depeche Mode-esque synth explosion.
The most successful attempt of the melancholic wave fusion a là Marc Almond comes when using the latter-day Bowie approach, resulting in “If Only in Words”. In its alternation of emotions, Love in Arms also astonishes us with its wind band, a blunt nod to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
However, juggling between amidst such a distinctive sonic palette eventually creates a sense of overwhelming stasis, which is clearly highlighted in the marching ballad ‘El Musgo’. In emphasising the ghostly atmosphere, the funereal organ, the slow beating synths and Bruce’s deep vocals, they push it too far, dragging the song through 5.47 minutes.
Love in Arms clearly embodies Gabriel Bruce’s eclectic personality and lyrical talent, mixing slow-burning melodrama, cheesy disco and Chris Isaak’s saccharine macho-rock. And the most aggravating thing is, that he can get away with it.
This is no better exemplified than by the thrilling opening to Love In Arms, Dark Lights, Shine Loud, which also just happens to be the first single from the album. It’s easy to see why it was picked to kick the album off, too, with a thumping beat and razor sharp guitars providing the basis for Bruce’s ferocious, growling vocal. “Summon all your villagers and just take my life/ you’ve gotta rid yourselves of evil,” he sings, as the infectious opener bursts from the blocks. It is followed by the brooding Honey Honey Honey, which sees Bruce’s vocal drop even lower over a driving guitar riff.
There’s no doubt that Bruce has chosen the first couple songs from Love In Arms in order to grab the listener and it works. However, other than Cars Not Leaving – which features a pounding rock beat and glossy synths – the rest of the album is far more thoughtful and melancholic. Sleep Paralysis – Bruce’s breakthrough song – is quite morbid lyrically and in sound, as Bruce sings “I got this feeling I were dead” repeatedly over a haunting, slow-burning organ. It’s the first of several tracks on the album that draws a favourable comparison with The National – another band who focus on brooding, world-weary sounds and feature a baritone vocalist in Matt Berninger.
The beautifully poignant six-minute piano ballad All That I Have is another track that brings to mind Ohio’s finest. It’s a simple, but remarkably impressionable song, one which demonstrates the strengths of Bruce’s wonderful lyricism: “What’s a little death in the scheme of survival/ I know that it’s true because I read in the bible.” Elsewhere, Greedy Little Hearts builds on a triumphant organ and rumbling bass, while Perfect Weather sees Bruce’s deep-baritone vocal at its very best, as he embodies Nick Cave over a jaunty brass section.
Love In Arms is an impressive and accomplished debut album from Gabriel Bruce. It also manages to avoid the trap that many albums fall into when the vocalist has such a distinctive vocal, with the positives of Bruce’s debut LP not constrained to his commanding vocal chords alone. Love In Arms depends on much more than that. In fact, Spector’s frontman was right to draw attention to Bruce’s lyricism, while his earthy instrumentation is steeped in drama and gothic tones. There have been some excellent debut albums out this year already, and Love In Arms stands comparison with them.