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The Wave Pictures – When The Purple Emperor Spreads His Wings

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The Wave Pictures - When The Purple Emperor Spreads His Wings

The Wave Pictures

When The Purple Emperor Spreads His Wings

Moshi Moshi

2022

Indie stalwarts The Wave Pictures have always been about more than the sum of their parts. On paper, they’re a classic three-piece – Dave Tattersall on guitar and vocals, Franic Rozycki on bass and Jonny ‘Huddersfield’ Helm behind the drum kit – but the reality is something more complex and much more interesting. Tattersall has always been a brilliant and singular lyricist and has developed over the years into one of the best guitarists out there. His playing – influenced by North African desert blues and frazzled country rock – is something to behold, especially in a live setting. Helm, a ball of energy while drumming, has emerged as a fine part-time frontman in his own right. And the albums have become more and more expansive over the years. 2013’s City Forgiveness seemed to mark the moment when they decided that bigger could be better – a broadly conceptual double album of twenty songs written on an American road-trip. As double albums go, this one felt lean and well-honed: there wasn’t a wasted moment on it.

Their latest, When The Purple Emperor Spreads His Wings, has a similar feel. The concept is more sharply defined: there are four distinct sides of five songs, with each side representing a season, and this encourages different shades and styles to emerge. Tattersall seems to have relished the challenge; his songwriting has rarely been better. Opening track River Of Gold (which begins the Summer section) is self-referentially nostalgic, a call-back to the Brit-folk troubadours of yore, full of sweeping strings and expertly finger-picked acoustic guitar. It’s followed up with a genuine rocker, Back In The City, and Helm gets the chance to go hard on the cowbell while Tattersall delivers a double-tracked guitar solo that is somewhere between Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash. It’s oddly thrilling.

And then there’s French Cricket, which has all the English whimsy of peak XTC or even Go-Kart Mozart, but bundles along on a guitar sound straight out of late-70s New York. You might think these combinations shouldn’t work, but why not? When Tattersall writes songs as winningly melodic as this, it doesn’t really matter where the influences come from: they are all subsumed within his own instantly recognisable blueprint in any case. His songwriting takes risks, dives into a surreal pool of metaphor and simile and comes up holding all the treasure. Few people could make lyrics like ‘I was falling like a walrus down a mountain’ work, but Tattersall is one of them.

I’d Rather Be Doing Anything, which kicks off the Winter quarter, is one of those Wave Pictures tracks which takes a maligned musical style – in this case, the power ballad  – and breathes a surprising vitality into it. Tattersall’s sheer wide-eyed sincerity makes it work. The nudge and wink of the hilarious and knowingly weird Hazel Irvine (yep, a song about the BBC’s snooker coverage) is a perfectly-judged change of gear, while the country-tinged Don’t Forget Me is the wintery counterpart of autumn’s This Heart Of Mine. The sombre and self-reflective Winter Baby shows off Tattersall’s eye for minutiae, and Flight From Destruction is a classic Wave Pictures rocker with that unique combination of kinetic energy and emotional tension.

The first of the autumn songs, Samson, sees the band veer closer than ever to their psychedelic influences. The chorus is like a bizarre advertising jingle for tobacco, while the guitar-work betrays Tattersall’s African influences. There are moments of real, gentle beauty, too: the lilting country-folk ballad This Heart Of Mine is sad and sweet, full of fittingly muted poignancy. It’s one of the moments when the album’s seasonal theme really comes to the fore. The Jonny Helm-sung Jennifer is a tender evocation of the pleasurable rawness of new love, jittery, excitable and nostalgic all at once. Autumn ends with Smell The Ocean, where the guitars sound like Mick Ronson if he’d lived in California, a kind of Laurel Canyon glam stomp.

Spring, the final section, begins with the title track, a simulacrum of 60s British psychedelia that the Dukes Of Stratosphear would have been proud of. Never Let You Down also delves into the decade of love for inspiration, only this time it’s more of a pure pop offering. Dale It’s A Damn Shame goes back even further for inspiration to the days of classic rock and roll: it’s all jumpy and jittery guitar, which suits its theme of springtime insomnia perfectly.

The album ends with two of its strongest songs: Walking To Wymeswold is a peppy, poppy country song that conceals a message that is sincere but never saccharine, while Secret Messages, with its sweet, sinuous guitar solo, perfectly encapsulates the idea that the new beginnings inherent in springtime can only exist after other things come to an end. The cycle of life and the cycle of death are one and the same. That this album manages to get this message across consistently over twenty songs and in twenty different ways gives some idea of just how good a songwriter Dave Tattersall is. These songs are funny, sad, hopeful and mordant, and they are always melodically satisfying and musically accomplished. More than twenty albums into their career, The Wave Pictures are producing their best and most stylistically varied work.

When The Purple Emperor Spreads His Wings was released on 20 May via Moshi Moshi

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