It would be redundant to open a discussion regarding the power of music to provoke emotion. It’s a topic that’s been talked about for decades, discussed and debated and deliberated over and over and over more times than Pharell William’s Happy has been played on the airwaves, and that’s no small feat.
What is worth discussing, however, is the way in which we interweave the narratives of our lives with the narratives of musicians and the work they slave over. The way in which a singular piece of music, and perhaps more so, a record as one continuous masterwork, can not only emulate the emotion you feel at any given time, but the way in which it also runs the gamut of emotion, tying itself to not one, not two, but several strings of narratives in your life and theirs.
It’s a subjective process. Much of what I listen to on a rainy day when I’m feeling blue isn’t what you’d listen to on the exact same day in the exact same mood. That’s the beauty of it. Our lives are unique, our stories our own, and through music we find ourselves reliving and retelling and remixing our experiences, reflecting on what we’ve been through and what we’ve learned via someone else’s experiences and memories and stories. Ultimately, it’s a rabbit hole.
That’s why this blog departs from entering any discussion of the fracture of musical narrative, sort of. I’ve had many albums like the ones mentioned above, more and more creep up into my life as the days, weeks, months, and years go by, but we are only going to explore one today.
It’s been five seemingly long years since the release of BRIT’s Critic Choice winner Tom Odell’s piano-laden debut Long Way Down, which at the time of release split opinion almost as much as the mass production of Marmite-flavoured chocolate. For me, it took a single four-minute listen of his go-to playbook hit Another Love that sucked me into his musically-gentle emotionally-captivating wormhole. In 2013, I was beginning to shed the shell of a teenage heavy metal purist, no longer afraid of opening my ears to music belonging to unknown realms, and Tom Odell was part of the opening of the floodgates.
At its release, and in the five years since, I’ve returned to the album on many occasions, immersing myself within its gamut of emotional exfoliation, creating collections of cathartic memories much like Odell himself may have made creating the record. Long Way Down, in many ways, is the tattered-and-torn biography of a relationship, from its inception to its end, and everything in-between and afterwards. It is a love affair to something long lost, and for me, I have a love affair with it.
From the opening moments of opener Grow Old With Me – it’s pitter-patter piano reminiscent of the warmth of a summer’s day, the smell of freshly cut grass seeping in through the window, rays of light lost in the lines of a half-open blind creating picturesque patterns of you and your lover – it’s clear that Long Way Down is an album written with care. Every flourish, every note, every word; simple in structure yet compellingly complexing in execution.
What follows is a piece-by-piece completion of a fragmented puzzle where not every piece quite fits and the structure of it is all over the place: the edges are in the centre and the centre is on the edges. Hold Me is next in the sequence, yet it feels like it should be in a sequence prior to Grow Old With Me, where the relationship which is in full flow at the beginning of this tale is merely a concept spoken aloud by a drunken man acting on sober thoughts. It’s louder, too. Bombastic, almost. This contrast is part-and-parcel of Odell’s songbook, even now with a second album under his belt, and yet on Long Way Down, it’s such a crucial safety-pin that unpinning it could be as drastic as it all falling apart. The continuous contrast of emotions and sounds, soft and hard, loving and loathing, focused and forceful; you not only fall in love with the music, but the journey it takes you on through your own memories that are constantly entangled with Odell’s.
It is the way the album has aged, the way in which I’ve grown with it, too, that is most striking when reflecting on its fifth anniversary. When I first heard it, I homed in on the lovey-dovey aspects of it, my life at the time engulfed by an early-days relationship, the honeymoon period pouring out of me and into my musical exploration. As years went on, as that relationship blossomed and bruised and buried itself once more within the soil, a weeping willow of sorts, I found the album inviting me back once more to indulge in its fruits, only this time in a more somber way.
Ironically, some of the more melancholically sober moments of Long Way Down are some of its loudest, the sadness of a lost love encapsulated in the anger of a drunken man, his pain taken out on the keys of a piano, bombastic but bruised. I Know, one of Odell’s finest early moments, is a personal favourite. There’s nothing like sinking some beers in your university halls with your mates on a perfectly average night-in before falling apart together at a sudden shift in mood and in song, the Spotify shuffle taking us to plains of emotional territory we weren’t meant to go. A unison of singing, and of crying. I Know is anthemic, the way it rises musically and lyrically, juxtaposing the feelings of love and loss between verse and chorus, much like the record itself. Whether you’re the heartbroken or the heartbreaker, the aftermath of a relationship is a tortuous one to navigate and that’s where I Know, and Long Way Down as a whole, succeeds: it encapsulates the navigation of your emotions through a period of time in which you’re not quite sure how to feel.
Human. Tom Odell is human. When Long Way Down appeared, it was at a time when Ed Sheeran was floating into the stratosphere as a man wearing his heart on his sleeve, playing guitar singing songs of girls that your grannies could get behind, and it began a change in movement, in which Odell slotted into perfectly. It was becoming the ‘in’ thing for a man to appear with a singular instrument, an inkling of vulnerability as they pour their hearts out putting pen to paper, music to lyrics, love to loss, and so on. It was the humanisation Odell captivated in his music that is most magical here. Take Supposed To Be for example; which is written in such a way it evokes that scene in 500 Days Of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character of Tom splits his consciousness between the expectations and realities of a particular situation involving the girl he loves and the girl he lost, Zoe Deschanel’s titular character Summer; where Odell daydreams and then laments over a relationship he romanticises before revealing its end in favour for another man. Supposed To Be, much like the majority of the album, encapsulates the emotional experiences we go through as humans, the way in which we romanticise and daydream and create whole worlds of memories that simply didn’t exist, or worse, where exaggerated fictions of our imagination. But, it happens. It’s normal, it’s human. There’s a verse here that communicates the message of Long Way Down better than any other, a sequence that shows the beauty of this album, it’s being human at its best:
“I sat on the rooftop
And I watched the birds flying free
I watched the clouds walk
And I watched the rain become the sea
And just for a moment, just for a moment
I felt so free from all I’m supposed to be”
I’ve tried to avoid mentioning Another Love, because out of any of Long Way Down’s songs, it is the one most synonymous with it, and more importantly, is somewhat symbolic of Odell’s career. It’s his go-to song. It’s his number one weapon in his playbook. The tearjerker, if you will. I’m touching upon it because, above all else, it is the song that sold my soul to the record store for Long Way Down. Lyrically, it’s Odell at his most vulnerable, flitting between melancholia and rage like a heartbroken student on a post-breakup night on the tiles. Glimmers of hope suffocate you like skyscrapers suffocate a city, torn down in seconds by minimalistic key changes and sublime storytelling.
Bringing this colourful exploration full circle, Long Way Down, above all, is a masterful display in emotive storytelling. Odell, throughout the album, paints the most smallest, insignificant, and unimportant details of the picture in a way so magical it sounds absolutely massive without compromising, or worst still, disintegrating, its artistic integrity. Whilst Odell has since released a sophomore effort, and a third is imminently on its way, Long Way Down, five years on, remains a figurehead in my waning collection of physical CD’s, and more so in my go-to collection of records to listen to when in need of musical catharsis.