Belfast-born, Berlin-based singer/ songwriter AIDAN BARTLEY has been operating under the commercial radar for far too long. Since the late 1990s, he’s released an album every couple of years or so and amassed the sort of back catalogue most aspiring songsmiths would donate vital organs for. Consequently, the fact he remains something of a best-kept secret on a wider scale beggars belief.
I need to clarify one point first. To describe Bartley as merely a ‘singer/ songwriter’ (a term often erroneously used to cover a multitude) is actually rather simplistic. His CV includes commissions for TV and theatre and his superb, cinematically-inclined solo work displays an intelligence and sophistication that’s becoming increasingly rare in the ultra-disposable 21st Century.
Bartley’s previous release, 2008’s ‘Fragments of a Daydream’ was arguably his most challenging in that it was almost entirely instrumental in design. Yet its’ lush orchestration, noir-ish tinges and striking arrangements rendered its’ lack of vocals redundant and it remains a huge favourite chez W&H.
However, if there’s one pattern that has emerged in Bartley’s work to date it’s that he’s not a man to rest on his laurels. Thus, anyone expecting a second ‘Fragments’ is going to get a swift reality check, for his new (sixth) album ‘Silhouettes’ is by far his most consistent, concise and (in places) poppy record to date. Although several long-term Bartley collaborators like Florian Grupp (piano) and drummer extraordinaire Snorre Schwarz feature, most of the songs’ acoustic frameworks were laid down by the author in glorious isolation in a cottage in Ibiza and the results are rarely less than candidly intimate.
In most cases, Bartley’s dextrous finger-picking and close-miked vocals stay centre stage. Sparse confessionals like ‘Free (I Wish I Was Here)’ and the stark emotional drubbing meted out on the closing ‘When I First...’ (“all your little thoughts are traitors that end up torturing you/ your lips are sealed but your eyes betray you – you don’t trust me anymore”) add up to the sort of startling set-pieces Johnny Bramwell from I Am Kloot does so well, while the warm, homespun romanticism of ‘Harbour Thoughts’ finds just a tiny Belfast burr spilling into Aidan’s voice.
Elsewhere, elegiac strings are utilised to up the grace and danger ante on songs like the gentle, Nick Drake-ish ‘Morning Star’ and ‘The Quiet One’ where the minutiae of domestic violence (“between the bruises you call a truce/ your roses are red, your violence blue”) is discussed in all its’ complexity. Love is also (literally) a battlefield on ‘Bittersweet Surrender’ where Bartley sings “just stick to your guns and don’t lay down your arms around me or cease fire.” The heartfelt ‘White Gloves’ is no less world-weary in its depiction of love and emotional maintenance, but its’ frail, circular guitar motif is simply too beautiful to dismiss.
Other songs find the narrator on the receiving end of different kinds of emotional ricochets. All strident picking and snappy finger clicks, ‘Funny Games’ finds lust and longing striking in no uncertain terms. Then there’s the Flamenco-tinged ‘Nora’ which deals with an obsessive, stalker: a potentially unsavoury character who has “discovered all she knows from the papers in your bin.” There again, the raging personal rollercoaster of ‘Crippled By Fear’ is also a ride the anxious author (“I stumble and trip over words like love”) is clearly keen to avoid if at all possible.
‘Silhouettes’, then, is an album on first name terms with love, loss and loneliness and it’s never less than human. It’s the sound of Aidan Bartley stripping his songs back to the melodic core with subtle, yet spectacular results and it weighs in as surely his finest record to date.
Aidan Bartley online