Strange Boy: Love Remains (Groenland Records)

Debut album by classy London duo tackles the deep stuff and comes out victorious

Released Feb 28th, 2024 via Groenland Records / By Ben Wood
Strange Boy: Love Remains (Groenland Records) The debut album by London-based 'experimental pop duo' Strange Boy is a fragile but lovely thing. Its melodically rich but often unconventionally structured songs combine electronic and organic sounds to create a world to get lost in. Singer/songwriter Kieran Brunt’s hypersensitive, brainy musings depict a world lived with several layers of skin removed. Life, love and loss often seem too much to take, but the songs’ narrators’ ongoing existential crises are often made bearable - exalted even - by moments of clarity, realisation and beauty.

The record’s spacious atmospherics, recorded in the crypt of a Victorian church, give plenty of space for Brunt’s classically trained vocals, every word clearly enunciated. This is arty, ambitious stuff, sharing DNA with the likes of Anthony and the Johnson’s gorgeous I Am a Bird Now album, the more interesting bits of 80s electro-pop, modern classical music and the art-song of Rufus Wainright and Sufjan Stevens. The music – by bandmate Matt Huxley and Sufjan Stevens and Bjork collaborator Nico Muhly - is a subtle, quasi-ambient soundbed for these hymns for introverts.

Boston Blue Period, the album’s first single, is a sensational opener: lovely cosmic synths pave the way for surging strings a la late period Bad Seeds before Brunt enters the picture. Inspired by an early Picasso 'blue period' painting, he establishes his narrative voice: sophisticated, generous, vulnerable. Like all the songs here, this meditation on lost love is alive to every contradiction and nuance of the situation, acknowledging pain but clinging to possibility ('I'm free..').

Follow the News has a touch of art-disco icon Arthur Russell in Brunt’s falsetto vocals. And while the album isn’t exactly a laugh riot, this tune displays a nice line in dark humour as it explores the odd, self-defeating ways in which we cope with adversity sometimes: 'When I was depressed it made me really good at bowling’, ‘Red wine and antidepressants...'… Being depressed but still following the news, ‘insistent drinking… catastrophic thinking’. As Tony Soprano would say, whadda ya gonna do? You gotta laugh, right?

The heartbreaking Oscar's Song appears to be a meditation on a friend's death/suicide, its soulful, trembling vocal reminiscent of how Sufjan Stevens bears witness to tragedy. This approach gives the words real power, emphasising that while the person depicted was loved and supported, this was not enough to save them. Whipping Boy is the album’s first largely acoustic track, recorded so intimately that you hear every creak of the piano. Is this an ode to S and M? Sounds like it ('As I count each crimson mark / Tallied on your torso / I love you like myself/ And even more so'). Appropriately enough for this former church singer, Annunciation (the term for the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary) conflates the holy with the secular ('Time ceases to exist/ Two pairs of eyes meet..'). The album loves a lyrical conceit.

The undulating, trancey Sofia sounds initially like it's addressed to a friend, before we realise that the subject of the song is just nine months old. But his doesn’t stop the beloved babe receiving some harsh truths, at least partially ironic we hope ('I must tell you that your crying / Will stay with you your whole life')! November Skies is a paean to a friendship now separated by the ocean ('Our thumbs are touched by touchpad screens’). Its outro sees Anna B Savage provide a vocal counterpoint as the duo sing to each other across the miles…touching stuff.

The album then concludes with two big musical statements. The narrator of 100,000 Fireflies is ‘Afraid of the dark without you close to me… this is the worst night I've ever had'. He then proposes a Devil’s bargain to his estranged lover: 'You won't be happy with me / But give me one more chance / You won't be happy anyway...' What an offer… After the album has journeyed through darkness, it ends as it must - with a sliver of light. The title track proposes no answers as such, but while an earlier song referenced Dante, he hasn’t abandoned all hope just yet. 'You will pray / frantically pray / that love remains'. The search goes on...

This is a very strong debut, confident in its approach and unafraid to tackle deep, dark themes in a humane, nuanced way. The lyrics are thoughtful, subtle, poetic. Meanwhile, the loveliness of much of the music sweetens the pill of the often dark subject matter. Love Remains deserves to become one of those records that save people when they need it most… like a life raft, or an old friend. 4/5