When the guitarist in your favourite singer’s band releases a solo album you give it a cursory listen, right? Phoebe Bridgers has released a couple of my favourite records of the last five years and I’ve seen the name Harrison Whitford plastered all over them, aware of the important role he’s played in some of her standout songs. He’s been there since the early releases, though, and now that Phoebe has gone to megastar status I definitely had a small suspicion that Harrison might be cashing in on his connection with her when releasing Afraid of Nothing (I was unaware this was his second album at that point. Leave me alone). As much as you can hear his talent on her music, there was nothing to suggest to me that he would have the songcraft and performance ability to pull off a cracking album of his own.
It only took one listen of the glorious ‘Ears That Could’ to tell me that my suspicions were misplaced. This six minute feast of sadness features some of the best lyrical storytelling I have heard in years, as Harrison offers up a sweeping and emotional tale that bobs and weaves through its observational narrative. The guitar line and the percussion might be simple, but the production flourishes lift this track to a whole other plane. I was in love from listen one.
Lyrics are often the first factor that pulls me into an album, and once I’d been sucked in by them on ‘Ears That Could’ I was keenly on the listen for other moments of magic. ‘I Don’t Know’ is one of the most straightforward indie-folk songs on offer here, but we are again welcomed into the world of a true storyteller. I can’t say why exactly, but the lines ‘no-one I know has ever/fixed a broken thing’ give me a shiver every time I hear them. ‘Salvation Army’ features one of the most beautifully simple and effective hooks of the album as Harrison repeats the lines ‘all the time spent looking for each other/was time spent well/it wasn’t much but I swear it was something/as far as I can tell.’ And on ‘Meclizine’ we get one of the most elliptical and haunting lyrical performances as our protagonist is taken deeper into ‘the woods’ of an obsession. It’s truly gorgeous.
I don’t want to talk about every single song here. But I could. The fact that I don’t think I can find space to delve into how good ‘Anyplace I Am’, ‘Linoleum’, ‘Secret Garden’ and the title song are almost causes me physical pain. But I couldn’t possibly leave you without talking about how beautiful ‘Helpless’ is. As with the entire album it is lyrically exceptional, but this song soars because of how unbelievably timeless it sounds. It seems fresh and new today, but if you told me it was being performed by a contemporary of Bob Dylan and Neil Young in their heyday I would totally believe you. It’s a stunning song that I can’t stop playing.
And while I’ve largely singled out the lyrics for praise here, that is not to say that there isn’t a whole heap to admire in the music; a gorgeous guitar tone throughout, simple but crucial percussion, and a voice so packed with feeling that it grips onto you and takes hold. This album is also so exquisitely produced that each song feels lifted above its bare essential elements. In a year that has been so packed with albums I loved, this one has managed to force its way into my top five of 2021. I beg you to give it a listen.
Words by Fran Slater