Album Review: Philip Selway – Strange Dance

[Bella Union; 2023]

Albeit a staple of romantic and melancholic films and series is a lonesome night drive or train ride that has a sort of inexplicably enchanting quality. Maybe it is the relative emptiness of the night that helps create this feeling of inviting solitude. Perhaps the lack of natural light invites thoughts of a darker kind than those during the daytime; it is hardly a coincidence that ‘nocturnes’ are a specified type of musical compositions. Certainly there is a very unique sense of “one’s own world” when in a car or a train; walking on one’s own two feet bears a similar feel but still a separate one. Finding oneself in an enclosed space of a vehicle seems to demarcate that “world” where it’s just us (strangely even if there are other people on the train).

At times like these, there arises a sudden need for a musical companionship; it is not a time to ask oneself definitive questions and expect to come up with exhaustive answers. The music that fits this mood needs to fill the space one is in while simultaneously not be too overpowering. In a way, it needs to play the role of interlocutor for our inner dialogue. Perhaps it was for that the ‘nocturne’ was created, and in that same vein, Philip Selway’s new album Strange Dance (as well as its predecessor, 2014’s Weatherhouse) could rightfully be called nocturnal.

Perhaps best known to most listeners as the drummer of Radiohead, Selway’s third solo LP, Strange Dance, features several songs of the mood described above, just as there are in the epochal band’s discography (“Street Spirit”, “Sail To The Moon”, ”True Love Waits” as a starting three). However, where Thom Yorke intentionally grabs our attention with the content of his lyrics, Selway goes for less shocking imagery which is all the more fitting for this setting.

Nearly all of Radiohead’s members have proven time and time again that they are just as incredible as solo musicians as they are when playing and composing together, and Philip Selway is no exception. On Strange Dance, he has migrated just enough sonic elements from Radiohead’s music to be audible while not over-emphasising his connection to that other project. I would be willing to bet that not a single person could listen to this album and recognise uncanny Radiohead elements in it (much less to think that this musician is a member) without already knowing who Selway was.

Strange Dance is a very cinematic album in the way it approaches instrumentation. Electric and acoustic pianos dance around string arrangements and are aided by oftentimes identical guitar parts (guitars have their tone on the down low which gives them a jazzy feel). He’s collaborated with many of his favorite musicians in creating this album, including Portishead’s Adrian Utley and London-based multi-instrumentalist Quinta, who also worked on Selway’s previous LP.

Of course, being Radiohead’s rhythm mastermind, the drumming and (perhaps more importantly) percussion are simply enchanting. Where other instruments may seem to be playing relatively simple and at times predictable parts, the rhythm section sews them together with rather experimental movements. In no small way it is the drums and percussion (again both acoustic and electronic) that sonically fill the train car or the interior of the automobile. These instruments add more movement and life to the ethereal sounding pianos, strings, and guitars.

Simultaneously, there are unexpectedly quite catchy parts, such as, for example, the lead piano on “Check For Signs Of Life”, which can easily can get stuck in one’s head. In a way this repetitive and addictive melody seems to keep our night thoughts on a very loose track. They are random and again not demanding rational and on-point answers, and Strange Dance masterfully supports them in their free flight, but these little elements of melodies help go back to any unfinished thoughts; in a way they are like that interlocutor that nonverbally points in a direction, indicating that we need to get off at this exit; or the voice of the conductor on the train announcing the stop that we may want to change trains at.

Otherwise, Selway goes through a myriad of different stylistic approaches to a nocturnal theme, such as brooding rhythmic abstractions on the title track almost reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave-style gospel sound on “The Other Side”, or trip-hoppy “Salt Air”. What is most interesting is that though most of these seemingly dark approaches, Selway’s gentle voice turns it all into something rather dreamy and these sonic choices reinforce the idea “dreamy” does not necessarily mean bright.

Lyrically, Selway seems to go for a broad approach, almost as if watching the events unfold from a side-on perspective or even a bird’s-eye view. There is not much granularity, which is yet another part of the “filling but not overpowering” quality of this album. Most songs have a clear romantic theme whereas others are more elegiac. “What Keeps You Awake At Night” directly approaches the nocturnal theme, while “Picking Up Pieces” is a reminiscence on the anxieties of young adulthood which do not necessarily come across as the thoughts of someone that is no longer a young adult; they may as well have been written by a 20-year old.

The distance that the lyrics seem to take is one of the ways that the illusion of the “inner interlocutor” is achieved. Sometimes certain words will attract more attention to themselves than others, but they do not detract one from their own musings. For instance, “The Heart Of It All” has a very memorable chorus which at the same time isn’t importunate. Perhaps, for more energetic and gripping albums such a lyrical approach would be detrimental, but not in this case; the words here are companions to our night thoughts and their function is to sometimes add to our contemplations, not make us feel as though someone’s listening to us and responding. Even in these hazy thoughts that we get on the train or while driving at night, there are pauses when we turn our focus back on the music and lyrics, and their distant quality allows them to simply suggest a new track for our thinking and feeling. Most songs include lyrics with what I call “banalities that are always goos to be reminded of”; those thoughts that aren’t novel, but can sometimes be exactly what you need to hear.

While Strange Dance is a rather nocturnal album, those broad and distant lyrics, aided by the atmospheric yet intricate instrumentation, mean there are many more moods and times that it can fit. Sometimes the albums we listen to tell us stories, and other times, the records invite us to make our own stories, simply with some lexical basics and gorgeous flowing arrangements.