The serene symmetry of Holiday’s artwork accurately captures the atmosphere that Port St. Willow attempt to cultivate on their debut record. It’s awash with ambient textures, steeped in a glistening beauty that mirrors the elegance of Nick Principe’s voice. His lyrics are affecting, eye-level portraits depicting love, loss and familial strain, and they are constantly fraught with feelings of loneliness. Holiday is solitary, isolated like the image of the island that accompanies it. Notwithstanding a certain monotone beauty, there isn’t a lot to smile about here, though sunlight gleams through the fog on occasion.
Holiday makes very effective use of space; each song is an interlude unto itself, transitioning into the next in a way feels natural and justified. There aren’t many surprises on this album, neither are there any glaring faults. Everything is settled, locked in, fine-tuned for a specific function. On “Amawalk”, Principe’s falsetto scrapes the sky as he wails out over gently rolling drums and somber horns. If it reminds you of the Antlers, there’s a good reason for that: Nick Principe and Peter Silberman are childhood friends. Port St. Willow never crosses over into this territory entirely, but it’s an obvious influence throughout. Ethereal acts like Cocteau Twins and Slowdive have also left their marks.
With the exception of the trumpet and French horn, Port St. Willow is entirely Principe at work, and his talent as a drummer is not to be overlooked. “Tourist” is perhaps the best example of this, in which he makes use of every part of his kit to generate a heavily involving beat, while the squall really forces you to listen hard for the redolent lyrics: “Slow down/The roots are showing/And you’re no orphan.”
If you’re partial to the aura that Holiday is continuously emanating, then you may also be willing to overlook the fact that a few tracks blend into one another a little bit too well. “On Your Side” and “Orphan” use almost identical timbres, and it’s noticeable upon the first listen. This isn’t to say that either track isn’t enjoyable, the record’s sense of continuity and overarching premise do much to ameliorate this fact. Yet you may be left wondering if there are too few ideas on Holiday to be adequately spread across 55 minutes.
It becomes clear that Principe is very involved in these songs. When he howls out on “Five Five Two Five”, it sounds like he’s on the verge of tears. “Put the Armor on the Mantle” is exactly as it sounds, commencing with a minute of silence before a resigned melody creeps into the darkened landscape, alone and without contrast. Principe’s immediate environment has nothing to offer him as consolation, hope is the only positive. Closing number “Consumed” brings a little more to the table, pairing skittering cymbals and rim shots with lovely, coiling guitars and supple keyboards. For an album that seems to almost enjoy getting down on itself, it’s a surprisingly optimistic conclusion.
Principe is the beating heart at the center of this project. His quintessence can be found within these songs, each a cryptic puzzle just waiting to be dissected. There’s the sense that he’s holding himself back a little, either scared to allow his music to become an entirely personal vehicle, or lacking the confidence to expand into other frontiers. There’s plenty of time for growth, though. More variety would help his cause, but Holiday is a graceful, emotionally affluent debut.