Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Somapolis track-by-track album review

9 10 2022

Sweet Billy Pilgrim, now a duo comprising multi-instrumentalists Jana Carpenter and Tim Elsenburg, will release a new album, Somapolis on November 4 2022 via Republic of Music. Their story involves a Mercury Music Prize nomination, the IT Crowd, the Royal Albert Hall, Glastonbury Festival, Late Junction and The Culture Show.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Somapolis album cover

Guests on the album include Kate St. John (Dream Academy) with string / horn arrangements and Darren Beckett (Brandon Flowers / Madeleine Peyroux / Bryan Ferry) on drums.

Somapolis opener We Are The Bright Carvers is a real statement of intent. Featuring the deepest bass I have heard for many a year, anchoring a hyper addictive song with powerful drums and a hard-hitting, emotional arrangement. The use of space is highly evident on Somapolis, with real and synthesised strings flitting in and out, alongside scratchy, mournful new wave guitars and delightful tag-team vocals from Jana and Tim.

Jana and Tim’s vocals blend so well together, adding a unique colour and personality to the songs. The production is perfect, adding a warmth and clarity to individual instruments and featuring short sound-designs linking each track, to give the feel of one whole, linked piece. Cities are linked by their transportation systems, which is maybe why all the tracks on this album are linked, often with transport or people interaction found-sounds.

Bliss Maps is initially a rich slice of electronica, evolving as acoustic instruments, including spaghetti western guitar lines, are thrown into the mix. The beautiful vocal arrangement, as Jana and Tim are joined by a collection of other voices, works so well with the trumpet, saxophone and funk bass taking the song home.

“Did I put something in your Chardonnay?
Close your eyes…”

Attacus Atlas continues with the squelchy, Bootsy Collins bass and mellotrons that adorn many of the tracks, in a song referencing the worlds largest moth, whose brief and beautiful emergence lasts for just days before it dies. The chorus seeps into your soul, as Jana takes the lead on one of the albums key songs.

Instrumental lines appear and disappear when you least expect them, keeping you on your toes, and revealing new wonders on repeated listens.

“It’s the light that leads me home”

Attacus Atlas is a story of brief, breathless and fragrant love that undergoes a complete metamorphosis as Pass Muster, with its jittering rhythm (definitely not a dancer!) appears, layered with a honey-sweet vocal topping that transports the track into gospel directions that seemed impossible to imagine from the songs beginning.

The piano waltz of Down I Go (heralded by a tube-station sound-sketch, very clever) is simple but effective, with some of the albums strongest lyrics. When the synth sequence and percussion kicks in, the song hits you hard in your heart. The simplicity and directness of Down I Go‘s arrangement makes this song all the more powerful, following the previous songs rich and often complex arrangements.

“There is a river runs under the city at night, and down I go out of the light”

The arrangement builds for the songs final descent, and then washes away leaving just Tim’s solo vocal and piano. Down I Go quickly established itself as one of my favourite Sweet Billy Pilgrim songs.

Dead Man Dancing is an anthemic beast, featuring a mixture of 70s and 80s referencing synth sounds, with a hint of late 70s Bowie in the chorus. Stress Position returns to the dual vocals and a more widescreen arrangement, and could well be a tale of crime, but going on past Sweet Billy Pilgrim lyrics, the true meaning is probably hidden somewhere below the surface and is always open to the listeners interpretation.

Jana Carpenter and Tim Elsenburg, of Sweet Billy Pilgrim.
Jana Carpenter and Tim Elsenburg

The processed music-box intro of The Night Watch quickly switches to a pure Steely Dan groove. The thoughts I had on first hearing The Night Watch included how on earth did the band afford to hire Donald Fagen to produce the song? It sounds so well-produced that I fully expect to see his name on the album credits. The attention to detail lovingly painted onto every detail of this song, from the shuffling drum pattern to the multiple layered vocal, make this an album highlight that I think will resonate with so many people.

A sweetly nostalgic 1960’s back-beat and organ swells underpin Pilgrim, which like Down I Go, has a feel of simplicity that makes the magical choral sections and more expansive moments all the more powerful. With no synths in sight, Pilgrim feels like a song from a bygone, long-lost era. Along with Big Big Train, Sweet Billy Pilgrim are not afraid to head back to the past and utilise more traditional tools such as brass bands, to convey emotion and help splash colour onto their wide musical canvas. The subtle production touches lift the arrangement, making Pilgrim a song that sticks with you long after the last reverb-drenched vocals fade.

Get Back To Where You Started drops you back into the here and now. After the two lighter songs that preceded it, the mood is buoyed with such a joyous chorus. The band throw everything at the production on this song, nothing is held back. Trumpet solos, big beats and deep Rhodes piano all make a welcome appearance, along with that funky as hell bass sound that is a star of the album. In an alternative universe, when the spirit of the 80s is still strong, this song would be the big hit single.

The album closes with its longest song, Skywriting. Another initially uplifting track, using a similar musical palette to songs earlier in the album, the discordant piano adds a slight feeling of apprehension that feeds into the dual mood that the song delivers. An almost classic rock driven instrumental section is simply delicious, and the synths, strings and deep electronics that see out the last minute or so hint at an ascension as the final part of the journey, with the album having lots of references to travel within the city, whether purely physical movement or through the individual journey’s that make up our lives.

There is so much love, care and a vast array of different styles shared throughout Somapolis, which appears to be the story of a city and tales of how the people who live within interact, travel and are affected by their surroundings. Somapolis is adventurous, rich, uplifting and meditative in equal measures, making it the most fully realised and satisfying release so far from the band.

Enjoy the journey.

Order Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Somapolis CD from Amazon

Order Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Somapolis vinyl from Amazon

Buy Somapolis from the Sweet Billy Pilgrim artist store

We Are The Bright Carvers
Bliss Maps
Attacus Atlas
Pass Muster
Down I Go
Dead Man Dancing
Stress Position
The Night Watch
Pilgrim
Get Back To Where You Started
Skywriting


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