"I'm not trying to write a love song, just a sad, pathetic moan"

Years active: Genres: Related artists:
2006 - 2015 Indie Pop, Pop/Rock n/a

Line-up: Charlie Fink (vocals, guitar), Tom Hobden (violin, keyboards), Matt "Urby" Owens (bass), Doug Fink (drums, 2006-2009), Fred Abbott (guitar and keyboards, 2009 onwards), Michael Petulla (drums, 2011 onwards)

I can't help but feel sorry for Noah and the Whale, as weird as that sounds. More specifically, it's Charlie Fink I feel sorry for - the guy just seemingly couldn't catch a break.

Noah and the Whale were born out of the London modern folk mini-scene that bubbled up during the mid-2000s, where groups of middle class kids in higher education or music school started putting on old fashioned clothes and playing playfully tragic and tragically romantic songs with acoustic guitars: the same scene is also the origin for the likes of Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons, among others. Marling, in fact, was originally a part-time member of the Noah and the Whale gang as well as frontman Charlie Fink's girlfriend, and that's where the sorry tale starts. The Noah gang broke through with "5 Years Time" off the debut album, which became a radio and TV staple in short time and a little bit of a hit. It was a duet between Fink and Marling about two lovers staying together, adorned in twee pastel shades: it would stop being adorable pretty quickly once Marling and Fink broke up.

After that, Noah's story is one of perseverence as they kept swimming against the tide. Their second album had a much more self-serious tone as it tackled the ex-lovers' break-up from a very specific perspective (i.e. Fink's): it wasn't remotely like "5 Years Time" so those who liked that song didn't care for the follow-up, and everyone else had been too turned off by the love-it-or-hate-it hit to give the new album's changed sound a chance. No one seemingly cared and the era came to an awkward end when Fink's brother Doug left the band. The third album Last Night on Earth saw them change style to get their traction back and it did result in another hit with "L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.", but the critical reception wasn't too excited and the new sound was such a departure from the first two albums that it once again shed as many fans as it gained new fans. Noah and the Whale were seemingly left in perpetual state of floundering, while their former co-conspirators flourished: Marling had become a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter in her own right and Mumford & Sons had managed to become a stadium band two albums in. The most lasting image I have from Noah and the Whale is watching their Glastonbury gig around the third album, where Fink sings through the retrospectively bitter "5 Years Time" through gritted teeth and quietly frustrated submission, aware that the only way he can hold onto any kind of popular relevancy is to play that one big hit.

There was a fourth album too, which went absolutely nowhere. Even I, ever the completionist, don't own it (hence it not appearing in the page below). The band was quietly buried shortly afterwards and everyone went their separate ways.

It's a sorry tale and perhaps the reason I have this weird parasocial sympathy for Fink and the gang's story is that I experienced it in real-time. I became a fan around the release of The First Days of Spring but had already experienced their initial rise from the sidelines, living in the UK (the only country who paid them any attention) during the "5 Years Time" heydays and going into the second album with the exact same presumptions that so many others did. Only I fell in love with it, and the debut quickly afterwards. As someone who was already clued in on music media and who followed the artists I liked with careful attention, I lived the ups and downs of the Noah and the Whale journey alongside them and experienced all the subsequent disappointments as they occurred. And I guess why it feels so unfair (which I'm not sure is even right?) is because those first two albums really have the makings of a classic beginning - they're excellently written, richly arranged and often poignant records, and absolutely something that would propel the band into one of the greats if they'd carry on their footsteps. Obviously, they didn't - which I do understand given the context, but which doesn't change how much of a let-down the second half of their short discography felt in comparison, to the point that I genuinely wasn't surprised when they announced their end.

Nonetheless, there's enough in their back catalogue that it's sorry to see them have become another remnant of this period, buried under dust and increasingly forgotten each year. There was a lot of promise there, and a lot of excellent songs.

Main chronology:


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2008 8 "Jocasta", "Give a Little Love", "Mary"

1) 2 Atoms in a Molecule; 2) Jocasta; 3) Shape of My Heart; 4) Do What I Do; 5) Give a Little Love; 6) Second Lover; 7) 5 Years Time; 8) Rocks and Daggers; 9) Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down; 10) Mary; 11) Hold My Hand as I’m Lowered

Morbidly romantic, twee but borderline melancholy. Quite pretty all the same, and massively overshadowed by its runaway bubblegum hit.

As briefly discussed in the introduction, Noah and the Whale were largely introduced to the greater audience through the run-off hit “5 Years Time”, a perky and incredibly twee folk pop sing-along about having a really lovely time with your loved one - found on this record. It would go on to haunt the band for the rest of their career. It typecast the band as the annoyingly fluffy version of their urban folk revival peers, a novelty hit with little real critical appreciation. Even worse, after frontman Charlie Fink’s breakup from his girlfriend Laura Marling, a band member at the time and his duet partner on the song, it turned into a bitter pill that Fink had to swallow each and every gig, a reminder of both past love and spotlight. It’s not actually a bad song, but given its adorkable charm it could swing either way towards irritation or adoration - I lean more towards the latter myself, but I have always liked my “Shiny Happy People” moments. However, the real tragedy is that it does undersell its parent album enormously.

Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down as a whole is much more downbeat than its big single. It’s melancholy, downright macabre and death-obsessed at parts and fixated with unrequited love rather than being happy together for most of its length. It is, however, a romantic sense of melancholy: it loves to play up the sad act but with a knowing, poetic wink to it, at times being borderline OTT woe-is-me and fully acknowledging it. It’s almost goth-like, only if goths wore tweed and cardigans and had a significant interest in xylophones and ukuleles. This sort of thing could go wrong in all kinds of ways but Fink is the perfectly charming channel for what the album tries to do: he has enough pathos in his voice and enough wit in his lyrics bring through the knowing wink in the heartache but lace with enough of a genuine emotional attachment. It’s verbose and dramatic, and completely self-aware and all the more alluring for it. “I’m not trying to write a love song, just a sad pathetic moan” indeed.

The curiously appealing romantic misery features a genuinely interesting album underneath, one that’s musically just as far away from the twee leanings of its big single as its mood was. For one, it’s gorgeously arranged. Multi-instrumentalist Tom Hobden spends most of the album with his violin and a horn section is constantly lurking nearby the band, and their presence is integral, and nary a song goes by without at least one instrument outside the usual rock band combo that seems to have been lying around and then turned into an important part of the song’s structure. There’s also the ever-present backing vocals - they’re largely performed by Marling and her lithe huskiness is such a great counterpoint to Fink’s that it’s inarguable that they’re a big part what gives the album its personality, and showcases like “Mary” definitely hammer that point down. It’s overall a busy album in its sound but each element is given space to breathe, which gives it a surprisingly down-to-earth feel even though the album gets particularly lush quite often. That intimate-yet-epic twist is the album’s forté - it makes grand statements like “Give a Little Love” (which, with its gorgeous organ and an incredible call-and-answer finale, is arguably the best song this band ever pulled off), the title track or “Hold My Hand as I’m Lowered” that much more meaningful. It also makes the largely mid-tempo run of tracks genuinely exciting and varied.

The tempo, in fact, only really picks up right in the beginning with the breezy and bouncy “2 Atoms in a Molecule”, the bedroom Arcade Fire-isms of “Jocasta” and the downright jubilant sounding “Shape of My Heart” - afterwards it’s only “5 Years Time” that injects a little refreshing energy into the tracklist and pulls off the feat of sounding far better in context than it does outside it. But as neat as they are - and “Jocasta” is one of the album’s best in fact - it’s the moody cuts that make the album and bring out the band’s strengths as songwriters and performers. They’re full of little curveballs, both lyrical and musical in kind, and frequently reveal true inspiration, including a level of playfulness that’s often atypical in something like this. There’s whimsy, personality and warmth - and often a really pretty melody to accompany any three of them. Ultimately, strip away any of the thematic gimmicks and these songs still stand because of how well their core has been written.

Shortly after the album’s release Fink and Marling would split, turning Noah and the Whale’s path to a wholly different direction while leaving the wheel of the scene free for the band’s peers to take over. Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down has become as bittersweet as it loves to be in its lyrics: a great start to a journey that never really happened and a great album obscured by the one atypical ditty. But its charm never dims. I still keep falling in love with the melodies, the harmonies and especially the lyrics that probably think they’re smarter than they actually are, but damn it if they don’t reach the concept of futile, unreachable but oh so life-vital love better than anything on this side of 80s Morrissey.

Physically: Clear jewel case, with a booklet of lyrics and a lot of lovely illustrations in line with the cover.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2009 8 "The First Days of Spring", "Stranger", "Blue Skies"

1) The First Days of Spring; 2) Our Window; 3) I Have Nothing; 4) My Broken Heart; 5) Instrumental I; 6) Love of an Orchestra; 7) Instrumental II; 8) Stranger; 9) Blue Skies; 10) Slow Glass; 11) My Door Is Always Open

A very beautiful album inspired by a very ugly breakup.

"For I do believe that everyone gets one chance to fuck up their lives"

Charlie Fink had his heart broken. Just a few years earlier he and his girlfriend Laura Marling had been singing about happy-go-lucky love in “5 Years Time” and how they’re still going to be merrily together in the future. Then she broke up with him. Charlie, being a musician leaning towards the melodramatic in all things romance, reacted accordingly: by writing a completely naked, intimately detailed log of his thoughts and life post-breakup and dressing it up in music.

As far as break-up albums go, The First Days of Spring is ugly. Charlie is bitter, lonely and completely lost – simultaneously yearning for his girlfriend to come back and quietly fuming at how she could leave him. It’s an album full of self-pity and genuine vulnerability, written by a man who was counting on living the rest of his life with someone and then seeing it all fade away suddenly. The tracklist works like a chronological map of his thoughts, from the initial hurt to rebound one night stands and the dash of light and hope of things becoming better near the end of the album… that is, until the very finish and “My Door Is Always Open” where Fink starts turning the tables and lashing out as one last act of desperation, stating he never loved her after all and that she’ll never get a chance with him again.

It’s far from a happy ending. But it’s a very human ending, and together with the other songs it creates a rather interesting break-up album where the supposed protagonist comes off even more awkwardly than the person spoken about. That sets it apart from most albums of its vein and it acts as a testament to Fink’s writing skills that he pulls it off so compellingly even when he doesn’t necessarily cast himself in the best light (intentionally or not).

The words are undeniably a big part of The First Days of Spring but the music has been adapted to follow suite. Noah and the Whale’s debut had a very typically mid-00s kitchen sink indie folk approach to its arrangements, but The First Days of Spring sounds so different to it it’s strange to think they were released in sequence. The First Days of Spring’s arrangements rely on space and a small number of elements used precisely. The full band is still there but each instrument gets room to breathe and play out in all its detail. Whenever the sound suddenly grows – the glorious bombast of the opening title track, the guitar solo ending of “My Broken Heart”, the anthemically optimistic “Blue Skies” that the rest of the album builds up to - it sounds even grander due to its surroundings being so humble. In either case, the songs are gorgeous and moody, as full of finesse and beauty as they are melancholy. The band have matured massively between the debut and this, developing a sense of grace and detail that the debut didn’t yet have, and it shows in the arrangements and how well the music ties in with the words. And I suppose it's some sort of proof of Fink's skills that even though the album is ultimately incredibly self-absorbed, for its duration his fragility is genuinely convincing and resonating. Take "Stranger" - it may be about a rebound one-night stand and it certainly doesn't cast our protagonist in the best of lights, but for its duration it paints a very clear picture of a person going through a very rough patch and being uncertain how to cope with it, and then casts that narrative against a phenomenal, beautifully melancholy song.

The only real part where the album stumbles is the middle. Between the two sets of four beautiful pieces of melancholy lies the album’s supposed heart, where Fink loses track of his own plot. The two instrumentals are both OK but feel unnecessary – the former is an orchestra tune-up, the latter a beautiful but shallow and brief guitar exercise – and “Love of the Orchestra” is an almost air-headedly happy song that doesn’t really go anywhere and certainly doesn’t fit the context of the rest of the album. The section simply doesn’t work and if it wasn’t there The First Days of Spring would reach near-perfection, because the bitter tale of Charlie Fink’s smashed feelings is otherwise an instantly captivating listen. It’s evocative, emotional, beautiful and lush to listen. Compared to the rest of the Noah and the Whale discography it’s starkly different and like the work of a whole other group – one that’s wiser beyond their years and found their calling somewhere else than where they thought it would be. It’s sad that it took breaking someone’s heart to happen, but Noah and the Whale ended up with their masterpiece because of it.

Physically: Standard jewel case. The booklet has a load of photos from the recording sessions but no lyrics; at first I found this a bit odd given the lyrical nature of the record but I suppose a lot of it is rather bare and personal so not having it all written down could be a bit of a shield for Fink. Still a little annoying though.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2011 6 "Tonight's the Kind of Night" “Wild Thing”, “The Line

1) Life Is Life; 2) Tonight’s the Kind of Night; 3) L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.; 4) Wild Thing; 5) Give It All Back: 6) Just Me Before We Met; 7) Paradise Stars; 8) Waiting for My Chance to Come; 9) The Line; 10) Old Joy

Big smiles, big melodies, but it doesn't sound quite right.

Most of Last Night on Earth is presented in third person. Up until this point, Charlie Fink and Noah and the Whale had predominantly operated in the first person, even when writing fictitiously like on much of their debut. On the subsequent& The First Days of Spring and its intimately detailed break-up psychodrama, the first person narrative had taken a turn to so personal that the band had more or less become about Charlie Fink singing from his own perspective. So when Fink starts up their third album with the line “He used to be somebody”, that completely innocuous pronoun is actually jarring to hear coming from his mouth. That is, only if you’re still not too busy being taken aback by the fluttering synths and perky drum machine that “Life Is Life” kicks off with.

Noah and the Whale were likely going to change tract anyway, because following up an album so deeply and perhaps awkwardly personal as The First Days of Spring would be difficult no matter what - how do you move naturally back to normal from what was effectively a diary turned into a record? So you may as well pick up somewhere completely different. But Last Night on Earth is more than just a flick of new paint, it's a full re-invention. The folk leanings and acoustic production of the first two records have been buried under peppy pop rhythms, 80s-adjacent keyboard work and cheery choirs. The intentionally sullen outlook that the band had come to known for has shifted towards happier tides with plenty of sing-along choruses along the way, and the stories Fink tells are now very obviously and clearly stories: tales of other people observed from the side rather than him being the central narrator, a move that makes as much of a shift away from The First Days of Spring as it is possible.

Artists and bands shift shapes, that’s a fact, but sometimes the transformations aren’t quite the right fit and Last Night on Earth is one of those occasions. It's like someone putting on a radically different set of clothes trying to desperately want to be someone else. They don’t do a bad job with the more hook-shaped melodies and sparkling keyboards that are the signature element of the record - they’re nice melodies - but at times it sounds like forcing a smile. The First Days of Spring was the painful break-up album and Last Night on Earth is exactly what someone who still hasn’t gotten over the relationship would be doing, trying to show off that they’re a fresh new person who's moved on but where a shade of bitterness flares from behind the facade. And because this is so obviously personified around Fink himself, it’s only apt that it’s his performance where these aspects most show up. His faux-Springsteen narratives lack the resonance, smarts and heart of his former character studies and they don’t offer much of a springboard for Fink to show off his charisma either. He sounds like he's singing karaoke, pretending to front a different band to the one that did the first two records.

The big thing to note is that Last Night on Earth is not a bad record. Even if the direction change is debatable, they are still the same band that did the first two records and for the most parts, from a musical songwriting perspective, they’re still doing a good job. “Tonight’s the Kind of Night”, “Give It All Back” and “That’s Just Me Before We Met” may have a whiff of the band forcibly wedging into a space they don’t fit, but they have some enthusiasm and heart to them, trying to walk in their new shoes with pride even if they trip now and then. Despite the clumsiness or cheesinees they have genuinely good musical elements running within them, which come more obvious when you contrast them to the blatantly chart-flirting “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.”, a song with a chorus hook so weaponised it’s holding a gun against your temple to force you to tap your foot to the beat, and which comes across incredibly close to cynical in its attempt to be something completely different. “Life Is Life” faces almost the same damning judgment, especially with its paper thin and almost banal lyrics and slapped-on choir hell-bent on wanting to squeeze some positivity out, but the rest of the song does admittedly sound pretty neat and it's only its final third that threatens to drown it. “Waiting for My Chance to Come” falls somewhere in the middle but it’s ultimately rescued by its middle-eight, and if there’s one thing the album truly and consistently succeeds at are its post-second chorus bridges, which are a constant highlight of each and every song they feature in. Even “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” has a middle-eight so great that its eight lines alone are one of the best parts of the entire record and is almost enough to get you thinking that the rest of the song is better than it actually is.

But the best material on Last Night on Earth is also the part of it that sounds most like the old Noah and the Whale, i.e. the slower songs. “The Line” sounds like a more natural progression for the band and the new production elements are used in a way that work with the band’s skillset better, and the near-hymnal closer “Old Joy” shows a little bit of open vulnerability in a record that’s otherwise shouting out loud how great it’s doing. And then there’s “Wild Thing”, which alone justifies the existence of this entire record. It’s a gorgeously arranged and produced (so many details flickering in the background that it really comes alive with a good set of headphones) piece of stargazing wistfulness that peaks beautifully when it lifts into its stunning middle-eight: it's not just an incredible bridge in an album full of them, but comfortably one of the best things the band have ever recorded. It’s a wonderful song - and maybe it’s not so surprising when I say that it’s the closest to something that could have appeared in the previous records.

Which, I guess, gives the impression that I didn’t want the band to change and I’m just disappointed that they did. But it’s more about how that change has come, rather than the actual shift itself. I'm going back again to the visual of the band performing "5 Years Time" in a festival around this tour, referenced in the introduction. The song had become the band’s signature song by this point, but given how it featured Fink’s former love before their big breakup and how lyrics were so openly enamoured, it obviously became a weight over his back. I say obviously, because during that performance Fink has the face and posture of a man who is having salt rubbed in his wounds live on stage, looking like he hates every single line he sings while the rest of the band are enjoying playing their big song. It’s clear Fink wanted to bury his past, move away from the sound he now associated with his old relationship and perhaps get the peoples’ favour again with brand new upbeat singles that could usurp his anchor-like hit. So the trendier sound (in 2011 terms), the snappier and hook-friendly songs and the brighter mood all come across like an intentional abrupt halt to old plans and a way to force a new start, and it’s not a growth spurt without its awkward moments. Last Night on Earth bears the sound of a band desperately wanting to find a new way to connect with people, but doing it by pushing themselves onto unsuspecting audiences rather than letting them come to the band. There’s enough good here to consider Last Night on Earth a nice album, really - but there's a downside to every upside and its direction never stops sounding slightly uneasy to the point that it’s difficult to simply enjoy the record without thinking how it’s like one band pretending to be another.

Physically: Jewel case, a fairly basic booklet with the lyrics and photos of each band member - though I do appreciate how spaciously it's all laid out. The CD art in itself is super plain and makes me think of a generic multimedia CD-ROM, a long shot from the more vivid prints of the first two albums.

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