It’s no secret that I’m partial to a bit of Erased Tapes magic. If I’m not rhapsodising about A Winged Victory For The Sullen, then I’m extolling the virtues of their glorious box set or gushing over the work of Nils Frahm. When one of their press releases arrives, there is a slight frisson of excitement at what wondrous musical delights might be attached. It’s rare that I’m not immediately smitten with each release, such is the standard of the label’s output to date, but the debut EP by Douglas Dare was a tricky one for me. I’ve come to realise that my major issue with it was the fact it didn’t really sound like other Erased Tapes offerings. This, of course, is a ludicrous thing to hold against a record, especially one by a new act. But something didn’t click, and I did give it a few goes. Which makes the presence of ‘Whelm’ in my top 20 of 2014 all the more surprising, to me at least. Knowing I would be reviewing it, I made sure that the album got plenty of time to breathe and tried to approach it without prior ambivalence. It took a few times around, it has to be said, and I would advise you against dismissing it after a cursory listen, because there’s something very special indeed going on in these ten songs.
The glitchy piano template from which London-based newcomer Dare built this commanding record may initially prompt comparisons with James Blake, but ‘Whelm’ is a far more intense beast. Indeed, it is Beasts of the Wild variety who spring to mind on the album’s more sonically dense material, especially the brutally propulsive ‘Swim’. Dare’s powerful voice is largely kept high in the mix, curling around songs like another instrument while his trusty piano keeps order. The woozy title track seems deliberately designed to unsettle the listener at the halfway point of an album that is in turns both richly emotive and beguilingly, bewitchingly uneasy.
The record is accompanied by a beautifully simple lyric book, describing the words contained within as “nine poems.” The introductory page from Dare outlines the subject matter of ‘Whelm’, ranging from love and loss to the 21st century obsession with time. There is something rather affecting about an artist concluding his missive to the prospective listener: “I have so much more to see and feel. But still, like water, my thoughts will wash up a new idea every day.” It goes some way to explaining the over-ahem-whelm-ing sense of intimacy that pervades these ten tracks. While not enormously sonically similar, there’s something of that utterly captivating aura of the early Antony & The Johnsons music about Dare’s performances here. I still can’t quite capture what didn’t sit right with me about the EP, but I have no hesitation in urging you to spend some time with this superlative debut offering. ‘Whelm’ may be my favourite headphone listen of 2014.