Originally bonding over a mutual regard for Jackson C. Frank, Cooper and Tong’s work together as Erland & The Carnival has been largely predicated on reimagining British Isles folk forms – reaching an apogee on their 2012 Magnetic North sideproject. Recorded at Damon Albarn’s Studio 13, Closing Time proffers a refreshed direction, characterised by anthemic, opulently crooned pop-rock songs that sound like James channelling The Lightning Seeds (the title track; Birth Of A Nation), or Hot Chip playing tag with Metronomy (Wrong). Elsewhere, aching ballad Quiet Love swims in a lavish Tong string arrangement, and I Am Joan (a tribute to Cooper’s obstinate, Jeanne d’Arc-like personality, apparently) marries minor chord strums and Under My Thumb marimbas to psychotically wobbling electronics, while That’s The Way It Should Have Begun (But It’s Hopeless) – The Cars’ Drive by way of James’s Sometimes – just about lives up to its tragi-epic title.
Although there are some beautiful string arrangements, overall the production has been stripped down, moving away from the previous spooky organ and swirling synths to create an intimate, reflective album with haunting melodies in minor key. Like the natural rhythms of the seasons and life cycle it references, Closing Time is a grower. The opening title track begins in downbeat mood as it describes the end of a relationship –“Time to get you out of my mind” – but ends with a hint of hope – “I can feel the summer” – as you can almost feel the rays of sun breaking through with the shimmering strings.
Wrong starts with folksy mandolin and develops into another sad love song with a yearning quality: “Don’t come back / Until you realise what you have lost.” First single Quiet Love is about the old dilemma of ‘can’t live with you, can’t live without you’ – “I quite like to be alone / I don’t mind where I fall” – featuring a bittersweet string arrangement and Paul Weller singing high-pitched sha-la-la backing vocals. In I Am Joan a few moments of unsettling fuzziness break into its melodic mellowness, while the atmospheric, piano-led Radiation has whispering backing vocals and ends with some eerie sound effects.
Is It Long ’Til It’s Over picks up the pace with a rumbling bass line, and the more upbeat tempo is maintained in second single Birth Of A Nation, where indeed the mood lifts too as Erland sings hopefully: “I always want to believe in other worlds / Filled with all the people that you love.” That’s The Way It Should Have Begun begins with heartbeat-like drumming gradually getting louder and finishes with distorted fragments of sound, as the singer bemoans: “I’ve been through this heartbreak before and it’s numb / I just don’t know where the feeling has gone.” They’re Talking About You Again boasts an impassioned vocal performance and lovely acoustic guitar phrasing.
With disarming tenderness Erland reflects on becoming a father for the first time in Daughter, as a piano tune of childlike simplicity tails off into gentle birdsong – an appropriately understated way to end this quietly impressive album.