The last thing that I thought Paul Thomas Saunders' debut album 'Beautiful Desolation' would bring to mind is a movie soundtrack; namely reminiscent of the synth-soaked score to Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Drive'. After all, Saunders was, until recently, living in Leeds and was best known as a singer songwriter with a guitar. But it seems he's got a much bigger vision for his musical career than following a well-trodden path. Instead, he's reinvented himself to produce an ambitious and arresting album that, for the most part, exceeds your expectations. It's a bold statement of intent and avoids many of the pitfalls made by new artists.
It's those synths that are the heartbeat of the record too. While at first they may sound a little too familiar, or even derivative, the feeling of 80s nostalgia doesn't last for long. There's a dreamlike quality to Saunders' multi-tracked vocals on opening cut 'Kawai Celeste' as they soar above the swathes of distant guitars and percussion. We're definitely in Dream Pop territory here, but unlike some of his more mellow contemporaries, Saunders is keen to point out it won't all be a good trip. He keeps reminding us that, "If I could, I'd break your heart" as he muses on love and death. In the space of 5 minutes, it's pretty clear this isn't your usual introduction to an artist.
While lead single 'Good Women' is more straightforward with its allusions to choirs of angels and a laid back groove, it reinforces some key themes to be found here. Overt religious references are scattered throughout the album, but there's also more subtle references to children and sight which Saunders cements with the line: "I swear I saw my child in her eyes". It's also not the first time that Saunders' concoction sounds remarkably similar to the likes of Doves. The wistful guitars and big choruses demonstrate a confidence in the sound he's developed; there's very little trial and error as he already seems to have refined the approach he's taking.
Saunders really starts to hit his stride later in the record though as he starts to explore his interest in other big topics. 'A Lunar Veteran's Guide To Re-Entry' and 'Starless State Of The Moonless Barrow' see him turn his gaze to the stars. They're both perhaps the best examples of what he's been able to capture on his debut. Catchy melodies that build into a tapestry of sounds, which are coupled with his falsetto-vocal performances, create songs that wash over you. While the grand landscapes of sound he creates may not be as alien as those made by the likes of Sigur Ros, Saunders certainly sounds just as triumphant as more established artists exploring similar territory.
As Saunders signs off with 'On Into The Night', it's clear that he could be well on his way to reaching Jason Pierce levels of experimentation on future releases. 'Beautiful Desolation' shows huge ambition and promise as a record, but it also lacks a moment of real revelation. I kept waiting for a single track that would really grab my attention and push the boundaries of Saunders new sound but that moment, unfortunately, never came. Perhaps that's because much of the record is so strong that you forget it's his first full-length effort. With that in mind, this is a perfect introduction to Paul Thomas Saunders, but I suspect that even better is yet to come.
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