vaguely noticed The Open a couple of years ago when their debut album, The Silent Hours, received muted comparisons to Echo & The Bunnymen and early Verve, and I wrote them off as besuited derivatives purely on the strength of their rubbish album title and worse band name. The record itself was reasonably well-received by the press (where it got any) but they resolutely failed to trouble the charts in any noticeable way. They slipped from view and I assumed that like so many other gloomy young men in black coats (Marion, Haven, Puressence, Unbelievable Truth—you know the sort) that they would amount to little.
This is the bit where I say “How wrong I was,” right? Well I’m not going to. Looked at from one direction, Statues is rubbish—it sounds like a middling, “serious” indie band’s second album, like they ran away to France to record it (which they did) and got creatively ambitious (as if they weren’t already) because someone got them into Miles Davis and they saw Les Enfants du Paradis once while stoned. The lyrics are, with alarming frequency, rhyming-dictionary cliché. On more than one occasion it brings Mansun’s spectacularly misfiring sophomore folly Six to mind. But all this undersells The Open a touch.
So what am I doing here? Lowering expectations, essentially; it would be easy to get carried away with Statues and proclaim it from on high as being some kind of masterpiece, because it has a whole load of pointers towards so being, but it isn’t. There are passages on this record that make me wonder why so many guitar bands make such dull, safe, predictable music, and there are also bits which make me wince with embarrassment that I can get anything out of a record so cack-handed (generally the aforementioned lyrical missteps). But if you’re serious about being serious, you have to be prepared to look foolish every now and then.
Statues reminds me of Ocean Rain—not because singer (and chief songwriter) Steven Bayley apes Ian McCulloch or because any of the songs directly rip off “The Killing Moon” or “Crown of Thorns,” but because it has the same sense of scope and depth, that feeling that The Open tried, with this album, to make the best record in the world according to a list of criteria that they themselves had constructed, and that they got within a whisker of achieving their ambitions.
You can sense the band’s aspiration from the off. “Forever” may be a laughably pretentious title for the opening song on your second album when barely anyone noticed your debut, but from the moment a quiet, circular guitar motif is picked out slowly and then joined by a forlorn trumpet in a hypnotic, jazzy waltz, it’s apparent that, if you’re in the right mood, it’s a very special song indeed. Momentum genuinely builds over seven minutes, bass and drums falling in, snatches of acoustic guitar and piano in the channels, before the lone trumpet whorls backwards and is consumed in gentle electronics and percussion for the final minute and a half or so, like the denouement of “Heard ‘Em Say” by Kanye West perhaps, only not.
Statues is ambitious but too in thrall to the sources of its ambition. Occasionally an open, reverbed guitar chord will sound just like Robin Guthrie; on the bridge of “We Can Never Say Goodbye” Bayley sounds almost exactly like Paul Draper. There are moments when The Cure or Talk Talk are recalled with an alacrity that makes you wonder why The Open aren’t just a covers band, which is another notch against them, but…
Statues can just about stand up against all these criticisms, because it’s beautiful. Steven Bayley apparently said that during recording Polydor had more faith in the band’s music than the band did; he’s hopefully a little more positive now. If the songwriting and lyricism sometimes falls a little short, then the production and mixing on Statues is so intensely musical and imaginative as to pull the record back up again. “We Can Never Say Goodbye” and “Seasons of the Change” may be largely by-the-numbers indie rock in terms of composition, but the sonic palette they are daubed in carries them far beyond their foundations. Likewise “Moment in Time” may be another little indie tune faltering on jazzy piano cadences, but the mixing of backing vocals is enough to add swathes of magic. “My House” isn’t just a moment of abandoned rock excess; it’s a psychedelic venture. In an age of big, brash, bright and unreal mainstream rock albums (stand up Coldplay, Keane, Snow Patrol, Embrace etc.), Statues is a lovingly crafted alternative. There’s a hidden track buried a couple of minutes after the final song fades out, an energetic, angsty tune about not compromising. It’s not entirely convincing…
I’ve still not heard The Silent Hours—I picked it up today in HMV and it was only £7.99 but I didn’t want to risk it, in case it turned out to be the kind of plodding, northern-misery rock I suspected initially, and soured my current affection for Statues, which is halfway down the road to being wonderful.