Memories of The Rifles include charting singles such as Repeated Offender and Local Boy; guitars ravaged by distortion and tempo to launch the kind of jab-heavy attack often reserved for gritty boxing gyms. The latter’s music video chews on themes of rebellion and connectivity, of youth and age, smitten with hyperactivity and Paul Weller haircuts.
The music video of frontman Joel Stoker’s My Own War is slowed down. Like an updated Bittersweet Symphony – yes, updated beyond Vindaloo – streets are paved with heavy introspection, following Stoker’s dizzied disconnect amid undisguised change and Englishness – there’s nothing more English than a town market and a Lidl popping up in your video.
The Undertow – Stoker’s first solo album – is similarly slowed down. The Rifles’ speeding bullets are exchanged for comfortable armchairs, on which Stoker sits to carefully address his mental health. My Own War itself is his personal anthem; a saddling folk screamer that harnesses the power of balladry and exotic instrumentation – nobody expected those horns.
Nor did anybody expect the mood-swinging violins the album flaunts, helping Stoker to double down on his mood on lyrical highs such as I Go to Sleep (“sometimes I feel like a ship in the night”), and Can’t Stop the Tears (“you can’t stop teardrops from falling / some days, you don’t get any warning”), the latter of which also packs itself with piano, much like the peppier Down at the Undertow.
That’s the behind-the-scenes selling point; Stoker’s ability as a multi-instrumentalist, playing many of the sounds heard on Undertow himself after years of forming musical rapport with others. But to claim that anything other than his ability to emote is the album’s best asset would be a downright lie. His depression – and underlying uplift – is spoken like a second language on Like I Love You, reminiscent of the bellows of Alex Cameron, and The Valley, which plays like helpful film dialogue as its burdened beginnings become more uplifting with later injections of instrumentation.
He takes pages out of the books of the Gallagher Brothers, and in the case of The Great Depression, Pete Townshend’s Let My Love Open the Door, but his feeling is all his own. Uncannily, he unglues himself as he stares at his feet, launching Walls Fall from standoffish wallows to declarations of friendship and friendship’s necessity. It’s always wonderful when painful themes that concern us all come with such a personal stamp. That’s Joel Stoker all over; that’s The Undertow all over.