Album: R.E. Seraphin – Fool’s Mate

R.E. Seraphin’s Fool’s Mate is the Bay Area songwriter’s second LP, and it’s brilliant. Released collaboratively by two fine labels; San Francisco’s Take A Turn Records and York’s magnificent Safe Suburban Homes, it’s surely his breakthrough record, a balanced collection of songs which are rich and intelligent, thematically lovely and beautiful to listen to. 

A fine songwriter, Ray Seraphin has assembled a powerful band for this record (including players from Chime School and Reds, Pinks and Purples), who play a recognisably Northern Californian style of melodic leftfield pop/rock, blending subtlety and intimacy with a clean and energetic propulsiveness. It is a lovely sounding LP, bright and energetic, full of live-band chemistry and DIY immediacy – but Seraphin’s vocal style is singular and unusual, almost unsettling at moments, appearing as if does in hushed tones, confidential, as if the singer is sat huddled at the drum riser rather than centre-stage. You have to tune in. At times it feels that the way Seraphin sings conjures the feeling of having your own thoughts whispered into your ear by an unseen interlocutor – a quiet soliloquy of internal uncertainty. On ‘End Of The Start’, a song that begins with the jubilance of new love, we find him thinking ahead to troubled times that seem inevitable “when the porchlight finally dims” and “we stumble on a hint of the end”. It sets the tone.

Fool’s Mate is a record which is loosely about these sickly moments of love – the doubt, the longing, the confusion. Seraphin’s lyrical imagery is constantly interesting, reaching for unusual ways of describing at a slight remove some emotionally true moments with his spidery, conversational, indirect prose – often addressed to an unseen “you”. It makes for storytelling which is both direct and slippery by turn. There’s a great deal to enjoy; colourful metaphors and observations steeped in nature – he’s particularly interested in weather as a harbinger of confusion or trouble, and in natural decay. In ‘Argument Stand’ a house of rotted ribs houses a malfunctioning relationship. In ‘Clock Without Hands’ a heart withers on the shelf like a houseplant whose leaves begin to rot from within. But for all the introspective wordplay, the music is tight and robust with summer-bright horn arrangements and knotty guitar lines. 

It’s a fine, tuneful, slow-unfolding album that sounds fragile and resilient in one breath – a winning combination. In ‘Bound’, Ray whispers with quiet determination: No matter what you do to me / I will not be bound”. The album closes with an excellent Sinéad O’Connor cover (‘Jump in the River’), but it’s the ecstatic ‘What We Don’t Know’ – part indie pop, part Stonesy rumble – which feels like the album’s crescendo. We find Ray in his most celebratory mood, lauding his wife and the love they share, while conceding that he can scarcely begin to explain their success. It’s one of a few moments where Seraphin made me think of another writer comfortable on the margins – Andy Partridge, who could easily have come up with a line as playfully brilliant as “let’s sit and write the book of what we don’t know”. On the earlier ‘The Worst I’ve Seen’, Seraphin’s songwriting is blistering – washes of keyboards, ornamental flourishes and fluid guitars find a home amidst a gorgeous, cracked vocal that flits from meteorological scene-setting to body horror and naked confessionalism. The instrumental passages sound the way it feels to drive over the top of a mountain to find a cloudless basin waiting beyond.

There are many moments of tactile, introspective brilliance and self-awareness on this unshowy, chewy LP. Highly recommended.

Written by Jonathan Shipley