Despite the fact that “Magnetic North” is Matt Hales’ sixth album, his lively instrumentals and mellow vocals manages to deliver the familiar and eerie loveliness of his first five works. Hales, who is better known as British singer and songwriter Aqualung, collaborates with female vocalists Kelly Sweet and Sara Bareilles on several tracks, and compiles a potpourri of 11 pieces in this album (12 with the iTunes bonus) that stray from his usually distant and suppressed style to create something more relatable.
The album opens with a bang with “New Friend,” one of the strongest pieces on the entire record. The song creeps in with a jaunty piano-and-drum opener reminiscent of the well-known Charlie Brown theme. This soon gives way to Hales’ sweet, throaty vocals and catchy lyrics, which are versatile enough that they could be describing anything from the singer’s alter-ego to his new puppy. Cheerful background singers and poppy ragtime music accompany Hales as he asks the listener if they can “hear what he’s singing?” Compared to Aqualung’s usually haunting melodies, this track is much more upbeat, echoing feelings of sunny days and driving with the top down.
This jovial jam is echoed in other tracks throughout the album. “Fingertip” bubbles along with light and airy instrumentals, accompanied by Kelly Sweet’s “doot doot” vocals to create a bouncy and lighthearted track about falling in love. “Hummingbird” describes an innocent and yet persistent woman on a journey. “Do you know where you’re going?” Hales huskily croons to his muse, often breaking at the climax of the rhetorical questions he so consistently asks throughout the songs on this album. Though the subject matter is hardly original, both songs are pretty catchy.
Songs like “Reel Me In” and the following track, “36 Hours,” are calmer, but still surprisingly faster than songs on earlier albums. “Reel Me In” employs meaningful lyrics and quick-paced guitar strums, but Hales’ voice is so high-pitched at times that the meaning of his words is often lost, and the result is a seemingly raw and unfinished track. In contrast, “36 Hours” is lively piano and slow crescendos, sounding almost like a softer Coldplay in its sense of power and urgency. Hales’ voice is at its best on this track, imperfect but strikingly memorable.
“Time Moves Slow” is another commendable song on the album, rising and speeding up throughout the piece and slowing down for the chorus, which is cleverly appropriate for the song’s title. Hales does a skillful job with his vocals, mellow and soothing but strong enough to keep up with the rising tempo of the music and to stretch the words of the chorus out when it falls again, all while maintaining the beautifully eerie vocal quality that he is so well-known for.
“California,” a very short track in middle of the album, is memorable for its strong vocals and distinct lyrics. There isn’t much instrumentation, but the song doesn’t call for it, and Hales manages to make it work. It echoes other classic pieces historically sung about the state, describing its intoxicating siren call and the uncertainty of the future. Hales calls himself a hoper and a dreamer, and invites the listener to “make our big mistake before we come undone.” Judging by the fact that Hales and his wife moved to California after this track was written, it seems a personal venture, a fact that is apparent in Hales’ earnest voice throughout the song.
The lowest point of the album is its title track, “Magnetic North.” Perhaps it’s just that it must live up to expectations of listeners who are expecting it to be the best song on the album, but the song isn’t much more than a disappointment. The barely-there piano and Hales’ inconstant vocals create a sort of unearthly discord that seems almost bearable until the chorus. “You’re my compass, my magnetic north,” the singer wails, his voice wavering so obviously that the song becomes pretty painful to listen to. The track’s saving grace is that the lyrics are fantastically poetic, but they hardly make up for Hales’ inharmonious moaning voice throughout the piece.
“This Bewildering World” is where the album redeems itself. Hales steps out of his own box and creates a track with deeper and sounder vocals. The soft, tinkling instruments in the back provide wonderful contrast with his newly strong singing. It sounds quintessentially Aqualung, yet ventures into new melodic territory.
The remainder of the tracks are more reminiscent with Aqualung’s already established style. “Lost” and “Thin Air” could be combined into one long song, despite being at different places on the album. Other than their consistency with previous Aqualung hits, and that they sound more than a little bit like Keane, there is nothing distinct or memorable about them. The final tracks, “Sundowning” and “Remember Us,” are even more so, except that they include the vocals of Kelly Sweet and Sara Bareilles, respectively, adding a layer of honey to the background of otherwise typical melodies.
All in all, “Magnetic North” will most likely please Aqualung fans with its consistency while surprising them with its new ventures. The upbeat tones of the album, though still subtly so, are much more lively than previous albums. The instrumentals are strong, the lyrics creative, while Hale’s voice delights in some areas and horrifies in others. For the casual listener, the album is probably a hit or a miss, but for the well-tuned fan, it definitely delivers.