Ben Watt, “Storm Damage” (Unmade Road/Caroline)
Ben Watt’s “Storm Damage” surveys the distance, both physical and emotional, and its connection to personal histories and relationships.
Expertly layering electronic and acoustic instruments, the songs are anchored by a trio of keyboards (Watt), bass (Rex Horan) and drums (Evan Jenkins), with Watt also incorporating guitars and unobtrusive found sounds.
Watt, formerly in Everything But the Girl with his wife, Tracey Thorn, explores powerful depths of feeling — from frailty and dependence to revisions and release — on songs with straightforward but often inventive arrangements.
The emotional charges have many origins, from the death of half-siblings in recent years and the political climate, to gusts of nostalgia and melancholy and the challenges faced by his children's generation.
Long an excellent songwriter, Watt is also an increasingly effective and expressive singer on his fourth solo album. Opener “Balanced on a Wire,” which perhaps most clearly carries the influence of mentor Robert Wyatt, reflects on the paths available to youth, which may seem reduced to either exploding or keeping it all in.
"Summer Ghosts,” which sounds a bit haunted in that David Sylvian way, looks back on his own family and formative years, including the location where his relationship with Thorn began.
Low's Alan Sparhawk guests on guitar and vocals on one of the best tracks, the wistful “Irene.” With a National resonator guitar and electric piano contrasting with repetitive loop of electronic boops and beeps, Watt remembers a singer who has moved on, even if he hasn't.
“Hand” is raw pain, encompassing both one's own anxieties and the often unfathomable feelings of others, while “Festival Song" closes the album with a sense of being finally unencumbered, if only for a while.
Even close to four decades since the start of his career, “Storm Damage” is a cornerstone of Watt's catalog, a collection to be enduringly recognized for its many qualities.