The ballad; it’s a form of musical composition that’s existed for close to a thousand years, drawing potential influences from Germanic, Scandinavian, and French traditions. Its definition revolves around a narrative and recognizable rhythm arrangements. Often, vocalists and lyrics are important elements of a ballad, as they convey the narrative which makes the ballad what it is. Thus, the ballad is intrinsically tied with images of skalds, troubadours, bards, and jongleurs, the knights-errant of song and story. Who better to embody a modern iteration of this image than Toby Driver, the multi-instrumentalist behind projects like Kayo Dot or maudlin of the Well?
On Madonnawhore, his latest solo effort, Driver embraces this image, creating an album of touching ballads which draw on the dreamy, art rock/pop themes that have become part of his staple sound. Interspersed with plenty of medieval references, the album also seems very much aware of its origins and historical context. The result is a rich and immersive album that sees the spotlight shift towards Driver’s delivery and emotional range, as befits any collection of ballads. This emotional fluency is best exemplified by “Avignon”, a touching track that hits deep right at the album’s beginning. Avignon itself was the city in which the Avignon Papacy was housed during the conflict between the French Crown and the Roman Papacy. It’s a city, located as it is on the south of France, that evokes heady themes of citrus, faint heat, spring and also erudite resistance, schism, affluence and opulence.
All of these resound through the track itself, as the guitars first announce the bone-chilling adage which makes up the backbone of the track. The lyrics seems to speak of an affair intermixed with an urban landscape, evoking the effervescent, historical quality of Avignon (“I fled into the night / wearing nothing but you” and the haunting “I’ll cross the flagstones / across the fragments” which echoes near the middle of the track and on to its end). Driver’s deep vocals which sing the main line of the track complete this theme perfectly, conveying the rich night, the heady romance of the conjured city and the rest of the elusive images the ballad hints at. This mix between a personal affair, atmosphere, romance, and physical surroundings reverberates throughout the album’s lyrics and ideas (like at the end of the opening track) to create a unique and intriguing perspective on personal experience (“She drew herself up like cigarette smoke”, is a brilliant line).
The rest of the album revels in these elements and spins them out to create varied tapestries of story-telling and sound. The same spacious atmosphere is maintained throughout, although to varying degrees. For example, the closing track “Boys on the Hill” takes this environment and stretches it out, creating a more forlorn and somber note for the album’s closing. The opening track, “The Scarlet Whore/Her Dealings with the Initiate”, features a more introspective version in line with “Avignon” but replaces the consistency of that track with strained performances from Driver injection it with urgency and pain.
In short, Madonnawhore (which only hints at the famous complex in subtle and interesting ways, instead of confronting it directly) is an exploration of Driver’s bard-like image through the medium of ballads. It’s also an intensely pleasing piece of music, a must have for fans of resplendent art pop and the mist-like compositions which have been known to visit the compositions of Kayo Dot now and again. If you’re searching for a singer-songwriter with as much punch as the title should imply, then look no further. Madonnawhore should satisfy all your needs and contains enough richness and variety to keep you listening for weeks, if not months.
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Toby Driver’s Madonnawhore sees release today. You can purchase it right above via Bandcamp. Sweet dreams of Europe to you.