Part of my problem with getting to this review was my listening options. Either I could use my computer's speakers (a bit tinny) or my car stereo (much better, but in this case the sound of the engine tended to drown out some of the subtler frequencies of the music).
However, once I finally spent quality time with the album, I found it to be one of Stephen's best. Hard to tell at this point if it is the best, but it might be. Gone is the drum machine of yesteryear (one of my pet peeves, as almost any drum machine is going to sound inferior to an even mildly inventive drummer). This is pretty much a full-blown folk music album, with much fingerpicked acoustic guitar, no percussion, and only occasional keyboards audible in the mix.
I'm ultimately left with the conclusion that this is a rather huge, timeless collection. All of the songs are in a similar (but by no means the same) idiom, with vocals to the fore and very subtle, well-played acoustic guitars (sometimes sparsely layered) in the background, with occasional keyboards and voice (on one track, courtesy Karen Edward). Time does seem to stand still during my listening to the CD, and the songs tend to blend together, but in a way that emphasizes the whole, rather than denigrating the individual parts. My daughter mentioned that she thought it would make a good soundtrack to a movie...not a Hollywood blockbuster, I would imagine, but a low-key, alternative kind of art house movie perhaps.
All in all, it's a melancholy, wistful, deep, charming, beautiful album.
Here's the track-by-track with my impressions:
1. Today Tomorrow — a beautiful love song, basically.
2. River of Time — a meditation on time's passing.
3. Graffiti on a Wall — has a fairly upbeat feel, and keyboards.
4. Don't Cry — melancholy, as the title suggests.
5. Sphinx City — reminds me a bit of early Leonard Cohen. Probably my favorite track.
6. And If — images of leaving and going home. Sense of foreboding and hope. Epic keyboards come in near the end.
7. Looking Back — song of loss ("she's gone, baby's gone").
8. Shoegaze People — downbeat & melancholy, but with a ray of hope. "Let's be joyful, let's have fun / the answer will surely come."
9. Imagination — bucolic images..."this is a wonderful place"...a little melancholy again... especially nice guitar on this one.
10. Nobody There — the closing song ends on a note of sadness...beautiful vocal interlude by Karen Edward.
The CD cover imagery is a good complement to the music...simple images of natural wonder. The front cover reminds me of images of Machu Picchu (but it's probably a sea wall near Edinburgh). A nicely designed package.
You can find Stephen's web site here, and his Bandcamp page to listen/buy here.