Monkey Swallows the Universe
The Casket Letters
lot of our earliest songs were very silly before I started putting more effort into the songwriting.” -- Nat Johnson in the Sun
As far as danger signs for highly anticipated sophomore records go, you can't beat that quotation. While I wouldn't personally use 'silly' to describe The Casket Letters, there was a certain lightness to even the grimmest moments that was key in making the Sheffield band's debut so surprisingly great. And things have indeed changed. Before, Monkey Swallows the Universe was Johnson and Kevin Gori and their acoustic guitars with help from three others, but the drums, cello, and violin were secondary delights alongside the ridiculously well recorded, intricate guitars and Johnson's exceedingly lovely voice (a bit like Emma Pollock, but even duskier).
Here they function throughout as a five-piece band and if Gori's fingerpicking is still a highlight, it's now one course among many. “Bloodline” even manages to provide an early highlight by sounding uncannily like a classic New Wave tune transcribed to folk-rock instruments. The band do stick mostly with their established palette of loping, folky “perfect pop” (in the early Belle & Sebastian sense) and darkly intimate reveries with the occasional galloping acoustic rave up for spice, but they're now confidently branching out. Most dramatically on the actually, electrically rocking “Elizabeth & Mary,” a slice of UK history that recalls at times Pulp's more fraught moments, the three newer members have here been fully integrated into the songs and all five manage the tricky path of fleshing out and expanding the band's sound without losing what was appealing about it before.
But melodic appeal aside (and there is plenty here, this record is nearly as earwormy as The Bright Carvings was), Johnson's lyrics are another area of potential concern. She's got a voice that makes everything she sings seem deeper and more significant than it might actually be, which is both a great gift for a lead singer. But their debut was great partly because they so skillfully balanced the 'silly' and the serious.
Here again Monkey Swallows the Universe dodge the bullet with ease and grace; in addition to the usual romantic topics of all stripes (“Little Polveir”'s “Suddenly you're not mine” deftly sums up the bewildered but pithy eye Johnson tends to bring to those affairs) and the brief dip into Queen on Queen violence The Casket Letters encompasses songs about young lover dying in a car crash (albeit with a happy ending), the illusory powers of science, and a song about a ghost who haunts his own grave that's actually kind of creepy unlike the vast majority of 'spooky' songs (mainly via the pathos that Johnson's voice summons up). There are no songs about being a pirate captain in a flooded Sheffield, but given recent weather patterns maybe that's a bit close to home. The band treat these more outré topics just as seriously, or as blithely, as they do broken hearts and domestic life and that knack is what prevents them from being gimmicky and keeps the album coherent.
But while Monkey Swallows the Universe manage to make sumptuous, folky pop songs out of matters both ridiculous and mundane, it's also telling that Johnson describes something like the rapturously gloomy “Paper, Scissors, Stone” as a song she wrote to cheer people up. This is a song that includes the lines “We're out there every day making choices all alone / The only faith we have is weak at best / And we're all so sure we're not just like the rest.” And yet, it does cheer you up in a kind of bittersweet way. Part of that is the warmth in her voice and the gentle nudging of Gori's guitar, but part of it is what might be Johnson's real songwriting gift: her ability to tap into the great lineage of British pop depressives without becoming either depressed or mawkish. Monkey Swallows the Universe are compassionate, witty, and wise and it’s an enormous relief to find out that they are also not a fluke. May they continue to put out 35 minute albums of 'silly' and gorgeous tunes for years to come.