Escape is easy. When your life is in shambles, your chemicals are telling you to do something stupid, and it’s hard just to get out of bed, distracting yourself takes seconds. Daydream for a moment. Watch a movie. Drown your thoughts out with booze. When you want to, it’s not that hard to forget about your troubles.
But that never lasts long. It can’t. A movie only lasts two hours. The sun always sets on the beach. Liquor costs money. No matter what, you always come crashing back down, searching for the next distraction. Because it’s easier to ignore than acknowledge.
Richard Edwards, whose new, magnificent album Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset comes out on March 31st, had good reason to escape. The former front-man of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s (perhaps the only band that has remained in this writer’s listening rotation over the last 8 years or so), who had just finished recording that band’s final LP, Slingshot to Heaven, was in pain. After a long career with a rotating cast of bandmates, he decided to dissolve Margot. A stomach affliction that had been affecting his touring ability for years had finally gotten to the point that Edwards decided to get surgery. Around the same time, his marriage was falling apart. And so he went to California for a while to clear his head.
Luckily for us, after a time out to sea, Edwards has returned with his best record in years, a meditation on regret, fantasy, and the strength it takes to come back to shore.
As a writer, Edwards has always dealt with what it means to live with one’s bad self. Some of Margot’s best moments came from stories of self-destruction as an addiction, masochism as a tool to repent for mistakes, relationships built on mutual aggression. The songs of his previous band shook with an undercurrent of dread. Harmonies would be a little off, the guitars a little out of tune, Edwards’ voice shaking and on the verge of screech. Even at their most graceful, Margot’s songs sound angry and ready to pop.
On Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, Edwards finally sounds at peace. Maybe it’s to do with the help of producer of Rob Schnapf, most famous for work with Elliot Smith, but this record feels relaxed in a way that Edwards never has before. It’s produced within an inch of its life, and, while that may sound like an insult, here it’s one of the keys to the album’s success. The instrumentation is gentle, floating across itself, every song’s various sounds eliding into one glorious entity. On album closer ‘Moonwrapped’, fluttering strings drift into the soundscape before retreating, subtle but surprising. On ‘Git Paid’, vocal samples fade in organically, sounding less like an answering machine and more like passing creatures. Even when the album does get really rowdy, like with lead single ‘Disappeared Planets’ atonal horns, the off-kilter screech sounds perfected and calculated, an expression of pain from a man who knows how to articulate it with utmost clarity. Edwards has said that he hopes the record “sounds like being lost in an ocean”, and, in that respect, he has absolutely succeeded.
The album’s lilting production is matched by some of the most affecting lyrical work of Edwards’ career. Just as he always has, Edwards sings of lust as a base mechanism, sometimes directly, as on ‘Pornographic Teens’, where he sings, “love me like you’re getting paid.” Sometimes playfully, as on ‘Lemon’, where he brings back the feline obsession he’s shown since 2006’s The Dust of Retreat to describe the pull of a lover. As always, again, he sings of dysfunctional relationships. The rollicking, alt-country, relationship lament ‘Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’’ is maybe the best song Edwards has ever made, and its pain is as incisive as it is critical: “If I get used to you, you know that you have been loathsome too.” As the bridge rises up with a fiery howl, you can feel the regret of a partner who sees the end of his relationship coming up fast from a long way away.
What elevates and energises these topics, which Edwards has been exploring nonstop since his first his very first record under the moniker Archer Avenue, is the undercurrent of sweetness and hope that belies the heartbreak. This is a man in a place of deep pain, yes, but one who sees the horizon and has made peace with the future. There’s an optimism in these songs that makes the treacly-sounding album title feel sincere, an embrace of a gooey, childlike hope. When Edwards looks up, he sees a road that is driveable, one that invites him to move forward. On ‘Moonwrapped’, he gently dismisses his child’s watering eyes, saying, “Don’t cry, ‘cause in the next life, there ain’t no stomachs, and love don’t die. It moves through time.”
Richard Edwards saw his life collapse a little, and he took off to California. He spent some time in the sun, and he escaped for awhile. That was nice for a time. But it wasn’t enough. As he says early on in this record, he got bored. On Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, you hear a guy realising that, even though it’s tougher, real life is better. Facing hell is hard, but getting out gives one strength. As he says on ‘When You Get Lost’, “When you get lost inside your dream, that’s when it all goes wrong.”
I’m glad Richard Edwards came back to us, because it’s allowed him to make my favourite of his works, an all timer of an album that should please his old fans and, hopefully, bring on some new ones.
Out March 31st on Joyful Noise