Artists and critics alike agree that the most sought-after quality in a piece of work is honesty. If a work is an honest reflection of the artist it cannot fail to have integrity. The Boombox Ballads, the fifth album released by Welsh songsmith Stephen Black, better known as Sweet Baboo, is, if anything, too honest.
The record exudes an air of blissful domesticity. Its confidence, idiosyncrasy and indeed its lyrics reveal a man who is not only at ease with his place in the world, but one who doesn’t care what anyone except his immediate family thinks of him.
Black himself admits that on this album he wanted to explore more what it was to be a ‘singer’ as opposed to a ‘singer songwriter’. This seems to have afforded him greater freedom of expression. Although commendable, this does lead to cringeworthy moments – like when that ‘honeymoon couple’ in your group of friends share a private joke and then a giggle in the corner, or when people air their relationship ‘pet-names’ on Facebook – it’s too much for even the mildly cynical amongst us. However, I think Sweet Baboo can be forgiven for these few transgressions.
At its heart this record is about growing old with someone you love. It draws inspiration from the humorous yearning of Harry Nilsen, Brian Wilson and Elliot Smith whilst remaining both fragile and vulnerable. These elements are immediately evident on track one, lead single Sometimes. As the first song recorded for the album it is a suitable point of departure – sparse verses, a first-person lyric and richly arranged interludes give a decent overview of what is to come.
What comes is sometimes beautifully and sympathetically crafted (Over Out) but other times lyrics are forcibly crowbarred into spaces they simply don’t fit only for the sake of sounding clever (Tonight You Are A Tiger).
However, the unabashed simplicity and directness of Walking in the Rain make it an instant stand-out. It channels the likes of Richard Hawley and The Coral at their laconic best whilst successfully throwing in enough surrealism to keep it off-kilter enough so as not to be saccharine. I suspect it was written for his young child…
Surrealism and psychedelia are not confined to cameo roles. You Got Me Time Keeping boasts an unexpected Clockwork Orange/A Day in the Life middle section that is by far the best element of an otherwise mildly irritating mid-album track. The track is in fact a microcosm of the album as a whole.
It would be easy for the heartfelt, folk-pop of Sweet Baboo to become trite, twee and quite frankly boring. At times the lyrics do set off the gag reflex (Got to Hang Onto You) but other times he gets it just right. You are Gentle is a modern-day Harry Nilsson foot-stomper and overall the sheer honesty of Black’s songwriting entwined with Paul Jones’ George Martin-esque arrangements make this song and indeed record very difficult to dislike.
The themes it explores are not ground breaking, it’s not setting the world alight, but somehow that seems like the point. Love, happiness, loneliness, acceptance, self-deprecation and humour are well-trodden paths when it comes to pop and there is a reason for this, echoed in The Boombox Ballads . It is at once both personal and universal and it is a true cynic that cannot find something enjoyable and comforting about a shared honesty.
‘The Boombox Ballads’ is out on the 14th August 2015, on Moshi Moshi Records