Neil Cowley ~ Battery Life

This is Neil Cowley‘s second solo album under his own name but it is far from a sophomore release. In fact he’s been releasing albums as part of many different groups ever since 1997, including eight albums with the Neil Cowley Trio and two as a side-man on a couple of Adele’s biggest selling albums, to mention just a few. Suffice to say the man has quite the CV, and that’s to say nothing of his precocious debut aged 10 performing one of Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos in London’s famous Queen Elizabeth Hall. Battery Life is as polished and well-crafted as one might expect from someone of such calibre but it’s also deeply personal. As he details in a series of interesting posts on his Substack, it was “largely inspired by the diaries that my mother kept and which remain largely unread. They sit, pregnant with potential, in the corner of my room.”

The title, he explains, is because “memories are bittersweet. Like a battery, they come with a positive and a negative.” As the preceding quotes suggest, Cowley is also a talented wordsmith and there’s a discomfiting honesty to the title of the opening track “I Must Be Liked”. Bittersweet is an apt description of the piece. Its opening melodies are mere two- and three-note fragments that echo through different instruments and crystal clear reverb. The piece starts to build in its second minute and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle not to be moved as the synths start to swell, for they are filled with a deeply felt regret. All emotions ebb and this is no different: a quieter, more contemplative section follows, but once again the echoes start to swirl, pinging from left to right (side note: the complexity of the sound design means that this is an album that benefits from good headphones). Eventually the echoes fade, leaving nothing more than a pulsing heartbeat.

Reader, I’ve just devoted 150 words to a single track, a sure sign that I had better stop lest I get carried away. Each track is so rich with meaning that I could write a paragraph about every one but I’ll spare you the reading and leave you the joy of discovering them for yourselves. I will say that I was lucky enough to get a preview of this album months in advance of its release date and I have listened to it countless times, more than anything else I’ve listened to recently. It stands out as an early candidate for my album of the year. There’s a casual brilliance to Cowley’s melodies that is utterly compelling, and the deftness with which he surrounds the piano in a rich and perpetually changing atmosphere of sound makes it feel as if there’s always something new to discover. Moreover, the image of the mother’s diaries, sitting potent and unread in a box in a corner, is a powerful one, and one many of us will be able to relate to. We all have our own Pandora’s box of memories. Dare we open it? On the evidence of Battery Life is it maybe better not to?

Battery Life comes out on March 24th and is also available as a CD and vinyl. Cowley will be touring the UK, Germany and the Netherlands in April and May. (Garreth Brooke)

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