I’ve been writing about David Shah’s post-Luxembourg project, The Melting Ice Caps, since 2008, and after a couple of reviews of singles/EPs, I have the opportunity to review a full debut album, Permissible Permutations, which released digitally via Corporate Records in June. The Melting Ice Caps fall somewhere between John Howard, The Divine Comedy, The Magnetic Fields, Morrissey, Noel Coward, and a more understated Scott Walker; Shah has a genteel, wry style that ruminates on London melancholia and epitomizes the intelligent, outsider observer. His emotive vocals are allowed a generous space, as the music never intrudes on the thoughtful lyrics, which are full of pathos and humour. In this particular collection of songs, there’s a fair bit more contentment and pay-off for romantic yearnings than in earlier material. Of course, even this complacency is complicated and tempered by an overactive mind and a stiff upper lip often set over an uncertain, quivering bottom lip. Shah crafts a musical and lyrical identity that is part careful pose and part bleeding vulnerability, the stance of those who are painfully aware of their own difference. This album is an articulate exploration of how we try to resist time and defy the randomness of our lives even if we have to bend over backwards to match perspectives to objectives. It is also an album about love.
The album begins with the titular track, which is a brief piano ballad with the forsaken quality of “Shipbuilding.” It sets up a manifesto of sorts, in which Shah delicately maneuvers through his upper register to eschew a life within acceptable parameters. The following track, “In Bloom,” is slightly more strident as it recounts a south London spring that defies rebirth and new beginnings by dwelling on loss and regret leftover from the summer before. With the addition of guitars, it reels a bit like a pub shanty but keeps it reined in for a statelier turn on the dance floor. The first chorus asks the question “how could a mind be quite so unlike the body in which it resides?” whilst the second chorus muses, “how could a moment be quite so unlike the life in which it resides?” Together, they are eloquent expressions of disappointment. Amidst the otherwise romantic connotations of the blossoming wisteria, the narrator’s mood is an exhausted, bittersweet one, which is beautifully rendered in the metaphor near the end of the song: “I’m the bicycle left on the end of the pavement at the end of a perfect day.” Shah returns to London spring for “A Week of Warmth,” providing a counterpoint to, or perhaps an alternate reality for, the self-deprecating circumstances of “In Bloom.” Shah’s fluttering vocals bask in the comfort of prosaic, domestic bliss, whether found in ivy cutting or gutter cleaning. Rather than a straightforward sentimental ballad, it sets up the sweet contentment as a solipsistic, knowingly ignorant fortress against the incendiary violence and dissatisfaction of the outside world; Shah half-heartedly chides himself: “Let the scope of my cares expand a little.” He wonders at his own happiness “while Britain is rashly burned.” I can’t help but hear the oscillated synth noises licking up the sides of the soft piano ripples and languid drums as a reference to the relatively recent unrest of English riots encroaching on a lovers’ refuge.
The fear of the fragility of a relationship that seemed to linger at the edges of “A Week of Warmth” reemerges in “Umbrellas,” a track which features droplets of piano and synthesizer, fingers falling on the keys in gentle hesitance. Between the airy cadences of Shah’s voice, the narrator worries his new-found love will blow away just as he has found it. “Umbrellas” is followed by the warm bath that is “Join the Dots,” which seems to continue the story into a brighter, golden tomorrow that is still tinged with self-doubt. Shah sings of his lover sleeping in his arms during a lovely idiosyncratic “Sunday afternoon, as Jarvis plays Doris Day, and a hundred grown men swoon.” You can feel the glowing relaxation in imagining Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service as a soundtrack to the rather heavenly mise-en-scène. The music also takes on a softly triumphant tone as Shah’s vocals rise and fall in harmonious breaths, delicately keeping the embers going. The plea for the amnesty of ambiguity is aptly put in the chorus’s lyrics: “love is here/where the lines fall/let the dots disappear.” The narrator pursues this dot metaphor to a delightful, heart-rushing build in the closing lines, “there’s nothing to see here/just photographic dots/but if you don’t stand too near/you might see a portrait/there’s nothing much to fear/just stories to be told/and if you don’t look too hard/then I don’t look too bad.” We leave this hovering, ephemeral moment as it dissolves into “Indian Summer,” another appeal for more time and a desperate desire to keep reality from intruding. A pervading buzz of synths envelop the piano line in an amber-like aura as the narrator hopes to preserve the moment and declares “we won’t be disturbed.” There’s a heady energy to this track, and as the narrator’s lover pulls back the curtain to let the outside in, the music becomes wobbly with bass and sharp cymbals, briefly destabilizing the cozy picture.
One of my favourite tracks is the bossa-nova-inflected “Keep Both Hands Behind the Cutting Edge.” A scenario of Tuesday morning shop class and particularly witty bullying unfolds against mechanistic, snare rim ticks and what sounds like a harpsichord. The brilliant chorus sweeps in on the swells of violin and twinkling glockenspiel:
Keep both hands behind the cutting edge
Nobody wants to see your fingertips detached from your piano fingers
Keep your hands gripped tightly on the ledge
Nobody wants to see you splattered on the pavement
At least not yet…
The depth implied by the details dancing across surfaces and insinuations is wonderfully droll. The seemingly backwards individual is even patronized in methods of suicide.
Another one of my favourite songs on this album is “Ghost Writer,” which is the closest to a dance track for The Melting Ice Caps. It begins with a light disco beat as played by a baroque Pet Shop Boys before bursting into a theatrical chorus that wittily offers a way to make more sense of one’s life, ultimately seeking to make more of one’s life. Purpose trumps cause as Shah sweetly croons, “We just need to turn it into a story/Teleology is oh so consoling/Give me three acts/I’ll give you how your life could be.” Mocking the tenuous power of progress through narrative, Shah craftily echoes the opening track’s alphabet analogy (“a-b-c/b-c-a/why/I have no real need to see a world that’s full of these permissible permutations”) by promising a way to order the meandering of life. He demonstrates how we can justify and elevate decisions and events by creatively connecting points “a” to “b.”
The topical song “Young Man in a Hurry” breaks somewhat from the inner commentary and romantic entanglement to cover the political soap opera unfolding in London around Julian Assange’s extradition. The music during the verses is quite dramatic and urgent, detailing Assange’s unique upbringing and his monumental trip-up. The chorus is more tender and melodic as Shah sings “You won’t say you’re sorry/you won’t show you’re scared.” The theme of time running out is carried into this track as well as the narrator compares himself to Assange: “When you break in/you leave things as you find them/but time won’t leave you as you are/When I break in/I leave things as I find them/the time won’t leave me as I am.” Two clever men who can’t outwit or stave off time in refuges-turned-prisons.
The dissolution of a relationship haunts the heartbreaking track “I Go All the Way.” It’s a wistful, yet stately song that seems to place a stoic face over tremble and failure whilst relating a cancelled romantic holiday. The music ducks, stumbles, and weaves the way people do when they force themselves through the unreality of a traumatic situation, shell-shocked and attempting to go through the motions without others’ detection. The crushed loneliness is conveyed so simply and poignantly in the heating of a ready-made meal. Then the bitterness darts out in the lyrics “take to the land/where a daytrip is planned/with no map and no one to please.” The song ends by wading through an undercurrent of brambly guitars, beating a hasty, stinging retreat. The final song on the record, “Medical Advice,” is set to a rather martial drum machine as the narrator finds the strength to fight back. Shah clips his lines in brusque, sarcastic apologies worthy of an angry exchange in a musical: “Sorry/ I’m truly sorry/if you wish that you had never even met me.” Then his vocals unfurl back into fluidity as he once again lets his guard down, leaving unanswered voice mail for an ex who treats him as pathology. In another refreshing analogical turn, Shah uses medicine and illness to critique the deterioration of a love affair. As a banjo plays the record out, it feels like the slightly manic unraveling of stitches in time.
Permissible Permutations is an achingly exquisite love letter to the self-pronounced undeserving, to those who are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moving gracefully between intricate details and big pictures, it’s about the allure of self-constructed realities and self-fulfilling prophecies. I can’t help wondering if the album can be read as a group of possible permutations, a narrative to be arranged as you choose and read against the rigidity of expectations and cause and effect. There’s no rule saying you have to view this record as a move from love to loss. Conversely, there’s no guarantee that the golden afternoons and rainy trysts aren’t the past perfect moments of the previous Indian summer. All we have is an assemblage of moments. Points to be connected, vectors to move through rhythmically, arhythmically, or even algorithmically. And hanging on when it counts.
Buy Permissible Permutations at Corporate Records.