Album review: Robert Sotelo – Cusp

by Thomas Blake

The notion of Englishness can be taken in many ways, not all of them good. There are the stereotypes of laddish behaviour: the football-hooligan abroad, the lobotomised flag-waver, the stumbling stag-party stalwart, the, er, Jeremy Clarkson. There is the boorishness, the lack of class, the poor dress sense, the shit cooking. There is Brexit. But in terms of popular music, it would seem that the opposite is true. When people talk about Englishness in pop they are generally referring to the vaguely eccentric but otherwise undefinable strand that runs through the work of Paul McCartney, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers and Ray Davies, via artists as diverse as XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Kirsty MacColl, through to twee pop and outsider folk. There is an implied gentleness to English pop, and I mean gentle in the medieval sense as well as the modern. It can be bucolic or cosmopolitan, cheekily subversive or carefully nostalgic.

In pop music’s handling of nostalgia, things can so often go wrong. An appeal to an often spurious golden age is usually indicative of a lack of ideas, even a negation of the genre’s future. But, perhaps paradoxically, nostalgia can be a hotbed of new ideas. When done well, the examination of the past can both pay tribute and satirise. Think of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and in particular that album’s brilliant closing song, ‘People Take Pictures Of Each Other’. Davies uses familiar musical tropes to explore the way the past impinges on the present, in music and in life, while at the same time creating a song that still feels pertinent in the selfie generation.

Robert Sotelo (real name Andrew Doig) is a songwriter in a similar vein to Davies or XTC’s Andy Partridge. Cusp is his debut solo album, and it deals largely in a combination of Davies-style character studies and more personal pieces tackling twenty-first century suburban ennui. Musically, he mixes things up just enough to steer clear of the comfortable traps of the past: wonky psychedelia is offset by a lo-fi bedroom-pop aesthetic (Sotelo plays all the instruments himself, and the guitar and keyboard parts twinkle in the general haze).

‘Bring Back The Love’ is a breathless ballad with woozy, almost tropical instrumental backing, while Bronte Paths is similarly heady, offering up off-kilter guitars and plaintive keyboards over a distinctive melody. Here and elsewhere Sotelo displays an admirable sense of timing and a instinctive feeling for space within the song: the bass lines throughout the album rise periodically to the surface, breathe and then submerge themselves again to carry on with their work.

‘Marinade’ is perhaps the most expansive and oddest piece on show here, irresistibly chasing its own tail to a conclusion that has a slow, almost funky, strut to it, like a one-man Beta Band. Simpler but just as effective is ‘Version’, which channels the Beatles (circa 1965-66) into a tale of creative disappointment, while ‘Dr. Parsley’ has jazzier, folkier frills and the title track goes heavier on the psych.

Throughout the record there are always implied social or political comments just round, and this is where Sotelo makes us aware of the flip side of nostalgia – a kind of timeless drudgery that is engineered or at least encouraged by those in positions of power. These ideas come to the fore in ‘Alan Keay Is Fit For Work’ (inspired by Sotelo’s time spent as a support worker in Stevenage) and ‘Tenancy Is Up’, a timely reminder of how individuals can be negatively affected by large scale property development.

Sotelo may crib from the past, but he does so in a way that is relevant, playful and often touching, with lyrics that point to the possibility of a better future. Cusp is an accomplished and mature debut.