“It’s not the destination, it's the journey,” suggested American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Self-Reliance. But in Smith’s case, the reverse is true. The road to Albion might have been long and winding, and bumpy to boot, but the music Harp has created is steeped in sublime melody, mood, drama and detail, its ten songs and two mood-matching instrumentals framed by a mesh of acoustic/electric guitars, soft shades of keyboards and Smith’s gorgeous voice; in other words, the quintessence of what drew people in the first place to his work with Midlake.
But Albion has starker, darker hues than Smith is typically renowned for, which lifts Albion to new heights in his canon; likewise, the level of personal revelation. These are songs about the human condition, from love - both lost and found – to faith, anxiety to joy, fear to acceptance, all couched in a highly distinct poetic language. The lead track “I Am The Seed”, a song about creativity and helplessness, is a perfect entry point, sounding simultaneously blissful and haunting whilst capturing the changes that Smith has gone through since he went solo.
Smith had been working for years on a set of new tracks for his debut album but he set them aside and began again when a new source of inspiration arrived. “Along came ‘80s music,” he explains. “I knew of bands and I had heard the odd song, but I had never dug deep into Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, Tears For Fears before. The major album for me though was The Cure’s Faith, which I listened to non-stop for three years. That music really resonated with me, so I was led in a different direction, which took a long time to figure out, because I was on my own, learning how to record better, mix better, write better.”
The opening instrumental “The Pleasant Grey” quietly throbs with solemn, Faith-like airs, but Smith’s assimilation of new influences has always been filtered through his own sensibility, opening a doorway into his otherworldly realm of sound, most notably before on Midlake’s stunning reinterpretations of US classic rock and British folk-rock. Admittedly, it’s a sound that Smith has sometimes found hard to translate onto record. This is a man who courageously left Midlake when he felt the two-years-plus attempt to capture “definitive versions” of his songs for the band’s fourth album had come up short. Such perfectionism, Smith once said, “is not in the way that every note must be played perfectly and precise. That is the opposite of what I wanted.” Instead, he simply seeks music “played with greater feeling.”
To this end, Smith made Albion mostly on his own at home, but there are contributions from former Midlake bassist Paul Alexander on “Silver Wings” and “Throne Of Amber”, electric guitar by Max Kinghorn-Mills of the Brighton (UK) band Hollow Hand on “Seven Long Suns” (incidentally the working title for Midlake’s unfinished fourth album, though this recording is totally new, likewise the chorus and lyrics) plus mixing assistance from Scott Solter. One crucial addition was Smith’s wife Kathi Zung, who he considers a member of Harp, not just because she programmed the drums. “Kathi has a very good ear, and she’s very knowledgeable about music. She’s been right here alongside me these past five years, helping me with every part of the process.”
Choosing an album title was much more straightforward. Smith not only has a penchant for British music, but the British Isles itself - or Albion as it has been known in times past. “I’m really drawn to Britain,” he says, “especially Medieval and Renaissance times. The landscapes and gardens, the castles and Tudor-style villages, grey skies, and the mist on the moor.” (Check Albion’s artwork photos for proof, with Smith cloaked and cloistered).
Smith’s process underlines his way with words, guided by intuition. Poems can be inspirations, and occasionally borrowed words refuse to budge when it’s time to finalise track titles and lyrics. For example, the starting point of “Daughters Of Albion” - Smith’s lament for truth and beauty, “things I hold dear in this crazy world” – came from 19th century poet, artist, and seer William Blake’s epic poem Visions of The Daughters Of Albion. When Smith began a song about “taking so long to make the record, and being unable to finish anything,” he was reading Roger Zelazny’s fantastical novel series The Great Book of Amber, so the song became “Throne Of Amber.”
One cornerstone of Smith’s worldview is his new circumstances; a recent marriage, and living in a new town in a new state. After decades living in Denton, Texas, he is now based in Kathi’s home town of Durham, North Carolina. She emerges in two of Albion’s love songs. “A Fountain” recalls a heartbreak that Smith suffered, "but then something even better happened: I met Kathi,” whilst “Seven Long Suns” is more bittersweet: “meeting Kathi later in life, in our forties, and thinking about the time we have left together.”
Yet the album ends on a reassuringly serene note with the radiant “Herstmonceux”, folding guitar chimes with analogue synths. The song was named after the English medieval castle in East Sussex that Smith visited after he had been recording with Kinghorn-Mills in nearby Brighton. Smith’s closing lyric looks to the future with hope: “Quietly the sorrow flees from me / Bright as day the soul no longer grieves / I am the seed / I wait, I wait for thee.”
Having cleared the decks, Smith is returning to those earlier, abandoned recordings for his next record. But for now savour the beautiful, career-peaking Albion.