REVIEW: Henry Priestman – The Last Mad Surge of Youth (2014)

Ed checks out the latest effort from his favourite folk/rock musician. 

Since having listened to Henry Priestman’s absolutely stellar debut album Chronicles of Modern Life, I’ve been waiting for a second to rival its quality, which is one of my favourite records of any genre. Seeing as this comes from someone who spends most of his time listening to metal, that isn’t a bad achievement! While it has taken six years for another album to appear, this has been due to lethargy but to a series of tragedies occurring during the writing of the original follow-up. These events apparently led to him binning his previous efforts and taking his time in creating a record that was more than just a successor, but something more personal to him.

This is apparent when we begin “At the End of the Day,” which surprised me by starting off with a brass band and meaning that, by the start of the initial verse, it sounds somewhere between a lullaby and a Neil Diamond song. Its pleasant if not necessarily memorable, with the brass section standing out prominently. This may only be the first song but you immediately get the sense that this isn’t going to be just another Chronicles of Modern Life.

“True Believer” does nothing to dispel the Diamond comparison, starting off as something that could have come from one of his more recent albums. The chorus will sound familiar to those who were introduced to Henry by his first effort, but it’s very brief, with his vocals appearing more restrained until the final chorus.

“We Used to Be You” has a very pleasant acoustic guitar riff running throughout the entire song as he reminisces on younger days. The use of strings adds an underlying mournfulness juxtaposed with the cheeriness of the guiar work and works wonderfully.

“Goodbye Common Sense” is a rare upbeat tune with the chorus sounding more like a folk song than any so far, but despite lyrics taking a pop at useless people in power – extremely apt given the recent flooding – the verses remains downbeat in line with the rest of the album. Priestman at least knows what he’s singing about.

“The Valentine Song” was never going to be cheery but it brings to mind “Old” and “Grey’s the New Blonde” from Chronicles with its sentiments of adoration. It is an ode to romance in general.

“In My Head” is bouncy from the start with banjo and “twang guitar” (apparently that’s a thing), and it is certainly the first real stand-out catchy track. Yet it also manages to discuss beliefs and the nature of reality. Henry also really lets loose vocally, and although his voice and range is slowly being affected by age, he still sounds solid and unique. This is the first number that seems to truly blend the new and more complex approach with Chronicles‘ simplistic catchiness.

The title track “The Last Mad Surge of Youth” returns to the more pleasant almost-ballad template with Priestman and the accompanying backing vocals greatly complimenting each other, although, musically, the song and its title seem to clash, sounding very grown-up and considered. The lyrics reminiscing about past times are rather poignant.

“Rant’n’Rave” is another rare bouncy song in which he moans about modern times and getting old and, having checked the booklet, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that this is one of the few ditties written by Henry without another major collaborator, although the arrangement still sounds a lot more polished and complex.

The verses of “Huntin’ and Gatherin’ (Ain’t What They Used to Be)” sound very similar to “Sacred Scrolls of Pop” from Chronicles before the chorus gently changes to a country-laced complaint about progress for the sake of progress.

“Same Circus, Different Clowns” starts with a harmonica. Sold! The rhythm of the song is certainly a change, with a verbose, poetic beat to it, with Henry using an almost spoken word sample for the opener as he rallies against corporate stagnation.

“I Cried Today” is a completely upbeat track… haha, no, had you going there though, didn’t I? This is a ballad about missed opportunities and regrets and is one of the more intriguing compositions, although its more of a grower than an immediately catchy jingle.

“A Pint of Bitter and Twisted” has a Celtic bent with the liberal use of fiddle and is only a moderately successful attempt to cheer the album up a bit. The more light-hearted approach to moaning about contemporary life is preferable, and it is certainly one that I’m sure we can all relate to.

The bonus track, “We Used to Be You (Part 2),” is basically the same song as its predecessor with a different arrangement, sounding sweeter with the brass standing out to full effect. Sadly, this version lacks the spirit of its older brother somewhat.

With the album conceived from feelings of death and loss, I was ready for a more sombre compilation compared to last time, but it’s a surprise how melancholic it actually is, with only a few fun songs making an appearance and all affected by a world-wearier Priestman; quite an achievement given the time he’s spent in the music industry. There are themes of rebellion, refusing to accept the status quo, and the terror of getting older, but it does occasionally stray away from this pattern when Henry starts to contemplate the meaning of existence.

The Last Mad Surge of Youth is not as catchy as Chronicle of Modern Life and suffers from a few too many downbeat additions, but that’s not to say its a bad album as the entire record is a definite grower once you’ve gotten over the initial shock of doom and gloom. The majority of these songs are genuinely enjoyable and that’s all that matters ultimately. It may be the “difficult second album,” a phrase that seems very true given Henry’s personal ordeals during its making, but he’s delivered a solid effort despite this, and I hope that there’s many more to come. Don’t make us wait another six years for a third album, okay?

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