The Apartments - No Song No Spell No Madrigal

by David Bruggink Rating:8 Release Date:2015-07-17

The last few years have seen some terrific new albums by a few of the 80s most talented and lovelorn songsmiths, but if you’re a fan of greats like Paddy McAloon and Paul Buchanan, you know that there’s a bit more to the story - these are artists who inspired an incredibly devoted following, and for quite a while, gave no reliable indication that they would ever release new music again. So, in addition to being a solid entry in their catalogs, their new releases signify a resurrection of sorts; a confirmation that all that hoping was worthwhile, even as the songwriters have gotten older and experienced all kinds of personal challenges.

However, the reappearance of The Apartments might just take the cake. It’s been almost 20 years since the last full-length from the band - which is to say, from Peter Milton Walsh, the band’s heart and soul - and the existence of No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal is something of a “miracle.” After the devastating loss of his son to an illness, Walsh appears to have withdrawn from music from many years, but was eventually persuaded to begin playing shows again under the Apartments name, and later started to write and record new songs. The album was crowdfunded and released through Paris-based Microcultures.

Backstory aside, is the music any good? Yes, fans have something to be very happy about, because the album has some of Walsh's best tracks - atmosphere-soaked, heartfelt, elegant ballads which haven’t totally shed his earlier post-punk leanings. Presumably an uncharitable detractor might call this “adult contemporary,” but in truth The Apartments have always been quite talented at navigating that tricky area between uncomfortably saccharine and genuinely emotive. Thankfully, No Song continues that tradition, and there are only a few moments that feel strained in their sentimentality.

The opening title track gets things off to a spirited start: it’s hard not to imagine Walsh shuffling down a snowy, lamplit street in Paris (or New York, where the cover image was taken), weary with longing, as the bass and kick drum drive each step forward. It’s melancholy in all the right ways - you feel that Walsh’s misery, and his appreciation for yours, is authentic. 

The album does not shy away from the tragedies of the past years - notably, ‘Swap Places’, in which Walsh offers to do just that with his son and asks bluntly, ‘Where’s the God in all of this?’ - but it has its uplifting moments too. ‘Black Ribbons’ is an effortlessly sophisticated, buoyant duet, channeling the breezy spring afternoon inverse of the snowy evening in Paris; Natasha Penot of Grisbi provides the crystalline counterpart to Walsh’s endearing warble. The jangly burst of 'September Skies' almost feels too positive at first, but considered next to the other tracks, it seems to provide a needed glance of optimism in Walsh's viewpoint. 

Often these kinds of albums, which demonstrate a new musical life for a treasured musician thought to be in retirement, can be fans-only affairs. But even if you're new to The Apartments, No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal provides a excellent entry to a songwriter who, happily, has not given up.

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