I'm closer to 40 than 30, and the older I get, the more I find that it's the ‘paths untaken’ which occupy my thoughts. Most of the songs on this album are about the friendships or relationships of my teens and twenties – the little affairs that went nowhere, or the short, intense friendships with people who whistled through my life. It is the kind of album that I could only have written now, in the relative peace of my late thirties; where my current stability allows me to look back at the inflection points of my life with a knowing smile, a glow of nostalgia, and the natural myopia of time – as Wordsworth put it, "emotion recollected in tranquillity".
There's a Joni Mitchell album that I've come to love called Wild Things Run Fast. She wrote it at the beginning of the Reagan era, about her new husband (her bass player, Larry Klein). At the time of release, she said it was a "romantic album for unromantic times". And that's sort of how I feel about this album, which I started writing in the second half of 2016 – the year of Brexit, the year so many of my heroes died, and which culminated in myself and my partner, crestfallen, in New York City on the night that Trump was elected. If 2016 seemed dark from beginning to end, it was against that backdrop that I started working on a set of songs about light, warmth, memory, friendship, and the beauty of the late summer and early autumn, which was then further refined during a brief period spent in California in 2017.
It was only after I'd mostly completed this album – with its multiple autumnal references, and its nostalgic look back on some of the key moments of my life – that a cancer scare made it seem at least potentially possible that I might be experiencing my very own 'autumn'. That cancer scare came to nothing, but the reflective mood precipitated by my health worries (along with the loss of a close family member at the same time) seemed very in keeping with the tone and theme of this album.
This record represents a proper return to the shoegaze/dream-pop sound that I am undoubtedly better known for. It was lovely to be working in familiar territory again, and bringing to bear everything I had learned about production and texture from my last album, In Love With A Ghost. The collection of songs on The Dream Of The Red Sails came together very quickly, perhaps because instead of working against the grain of my instincts, I decided to acknowledge my skills and work towards improving them – and not be afraid of using my own ideas.
I have, in the past, run in the same circles as more progressive musicians who – perhaps – slightly denigrated my methods, or the genre that I have chosen to work in; I wonder whether my last album was, in part, designed to prove my skills as a producer. But now, I no longer care what fashionable or influential people think about my music, and that has been a total liberation. My ambition is now focused on pushing the 'thing' that I do – my thing – as far as it can go. And in that respect I feel that, four albums in, I'm just getting started.
I'm very proud of this album. I feel that it brings together everything I've learned from the other albums – about guitar textures, tunings, sound manipulation, chord sequences, lyrics, production, and dynamic arrangement – into one coherent whole. And it packs a punch too: the first Modern Painters album had 12 tracks, stretched out over 70+ minutes. This album squeezes 11 tracks into 47 minutes. It is leaner, sharper, better crafted, and more to the point. And whilst it is nothing like her music, I will invoke Joni Mitchell again; for me, this album has the same kind of breezy self-confidence that I love in her mid-period works; that sense of knowing one’s own style well enough to let the process unfold as it may, and to not worry too much about smoothing off some of the naturally rough edges. There’s a T.S. Eliot quote, which only now makes sense to me – “Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment, or by years of effort, or both”.