Album Review: MF Tomlinson – We Are Still Wild Horses

[PRAH Recordings; 2023]

Boredom was another deadly force during the global pandemic that started in 2020. Fatal to creative spirits and to hope, it instead bred desolation and loneliness. MF Tomlinson burrowed deep through the caverns of solitude, and has already produced a notable work in the form of his 2021 debut album Strange Time.

We Are Still Wild Horses carries on from where its predecessor left off, managing – somehow – to dig deeper still, to excavate frustration, fatigue, and restlessness. Consisting of just four tracks over 40 minutes, Tomlinson weaves long-winded worlds full of details: protests in Trafalgar Square disbanded and protestors carried away, mindless self-care during the darkness of winter; aimless observations of those outside his window. We Are Still Wild Horses is boredom turned in on itself, mutated into dreamy tapestries born of minimal social interaction and a desire to create something from the nothingness.

And, humorously, Tomlinson’s main focus across the four tracks is the weather. You know, that mindless conversation topic that has strangers chatting to each other at bus stops or two folks on a date making small talk. “Outside my window / There’s a cloud / Floating overhead,” he observes on the opening track “A Cloud”. His tone is light and amicable, but with a hidden bite. It’s almost like he’s saying, “Yes, I know it’s banal, but it’s all I’ve got.” Swirls of strings take him skyward as he imagines soaring across the city, meeting folks on balconies to be “part of the midnight salon.” Elsewhere on “Winter Time Blues” he’s aching for sunshine. “After all, for chrissakes, I’m an Australian,” he jokes, but this time his bite is more fanged. Over woozy, earthy brass, the arrangement evokes a New Orleans funeral march, complete with a duo of psych-inflected guitar solos that set the whole thing alight.

Come album highlight “The End of the Road”, Tomlinson seems keener to let the wind carry him away than to eviscerate with fire. Capturing that perfect balance of wistfulness and melancholia, he manages to make the afterlife seem like a peaceful (if not doomed) prospect, even though it’s full of the incandescent rage of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protestors. Meandering and slowly seeing itself out, it’s a wonderful eight and a half minutes, with echoes of Leonard Cohen as piano chords mix with vocal harmonies and pillowy horns.

It’s on the final title track where Tomlinson really stretches out though, unfurling fully as his imagination seems to spill out atop rippling piano, flutes, and jazzy inflections from drummer Ed Grimshaw and bass player Ben Manning. The track’s second half is an extension on an already extended piece, and it’s perhaps the least engaging moment on the record, but still dazzling in its own way. There’s telling commentary on society too, weaved in amongst all the fantastical imagery of circus performers, howling at the moon, and meta characters insisting we “blame the writer.” “They knew the better you dress the worse you can behave,” a likely pointed indictment of the upper classes and UK government officials partying while the country was locked down. The tone might be less directly seething than on “Winter Time Blues”, but the discontent is still there, burbling in the tempered tempo of the first half.

“All or nothing / Was never enough / For anyone ever,” he adds later in the 21 minute track. The mammoth epic title track and the album as a whole both err on giving their all; even though it’s just four tracks over 40 minutes, it’s hard not to feel the intensity of Tomlinson’s psyche unravelling across the runtime. Multiple 24 hour sessions working on bringing it all together show themselves, be it in the gritted-teeth humour or the almost surreal tangents the music takes. Orchestration will sour a major key guitar melody at times, like a dark cloud settling in, but every so often a beam of sunlight might also break through. We Are Still Wild Horses is all weather at its heart, from the calm to the tempest. It’s all Tomlinson has got, as he strives for unprecedented times to end and to be able to connect with the world again – all before he succumbs completely to the deadly force that is boredom.