It would be easy to listen the debut self—titled album by UK post-rockers caroline and simply let it pass you by, barely noticing it due to the often-subtle nature of the music and the lyrical obscurity. It would be easy to think it was sparse and unsatisfying. It would be easy to come away from listening to caroline thinking ‘well, I don’t see what the fuss is there.’ But while all of those reactions can be achieved with barely a moment’s thought or effort, I’m here to tell you from the start that, if you give this album the time it really deserves, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most interesting and quietly beautiful records of the year so far. caroline don’t do things in the way that people might expect here and, for that reason, I imagine many one-time listeners might have missed the creativity, experimentalism, and originality that is on show on this mesmerising LP.
I’d actually go as far as to name this as an experimental album. I know that when people talk about experimental music they usually have something more chaotic and full-on in mind, probably with electronic elements – artists like Bjork, FKA Twigs, Arca, and Sophie all spring immediately to mind. But how else can you describe an album that features a song like ‘zilch’ – a 2 minute interlude in which it appears like someone is trying and failing to cut up their guitar strings with scissors – and yet still makes it sound beautiful as hell?
How else do you categorise a work that features a gorgeous cello piece like ‘desperately’ at one turn, but later throws in a messy, cacophony of strings on a fifty-second interval such as ‘hurtle’? This may not be music that throws everything at the wall, it may be quiet and measured at times, but if this isn’t experimental then I don’t know what is.
As often with experimental music, there are challenges to overcome. Most of the songs I have mentioned so far are interludes and the album is full of them. These interludes do break the flow and interrupt the narrative but, in the case of caroline, that is very purposeful. The way this album is structured all seems to point to the messy process of making music, the beauty that comes out of leaving things in that others may have taken out, the magic of letting your creative juices flow and having the confidence to create music that some people might not like or understand.
But not all of the album is totally challenging. The opening two songs ‘Dark Blue’ and ‘Good morning (red)’, in fact, are both so stunningly beautiful that they will likely invite most listeners in. They hold the album’s trademark of slow builds, gradually added layers of instrumentation, and cryptic lyrics that will take a fair bit of working out. The fact that ‘Good morning (red)’ was actually written in 2017 when the band were feeling optimistic about a possible political upturn due to the Corbyn campaign they supported is also another example of their willingness to leave in things that others may have taken out. At the time of its inception this song was meant as a call for change, an optimistic look towards the future – in the context of today, and with a change in the vocal delivery, it sounds like a mourning of a future that could’ve been.
And it feels like, as you go through the album, ‘mourning’ is an important word to focus on. There is an emphasis on loss on the songs mentioned so far, and other highlights such as ‘Skydiving onto the library roof’, as well as a funereal tone to some of the instrumentation by the eight-piece band. Nine-minute closer ‘Natural death’ only adds to that atmosphere, with a slow but stunning unravelling from the simple violin that opens IT until the closest thing to a crescendo on the whole LP. All of this under a mysterious poem about looking back on life at its end.
But if all I’ve said about mourning and death makes it sound like this album is totally miserable, then I am giving the wrong impression. It feels celebratory at times. A celebration of life, of death, of nature, and of musical expression. For an album that starts so quietly, an album that could easily wash over you if you caught it at the wrong time, it is extremely exciting and exhilarating. I’ve heard very little like it before and I am glad that I gave it the time it needed. You should too.
Words by Fran Slater