Michael Crean - Songs To The Sea (Album Review)

What do the sea and dreams have in common? That's not a joke or a riddle but a philosophical question. Perhaps the answer can be found in Londonite artist Michael Crean's debut album, Songs To The Sea, which sees Crean explore the redemptive power of the sea by contrasting it with the elusive qualities of dreams. This contrast is mainly achieved via literal references in spoken word pieces but also through dreamy music, which is wildly original and decidedly gentle, albeit often turning to unhinged and abstract chamber pop. A multi-instrumentalist, Crean also works in theatre, so his approach to musical performance is understandably theatrical. The songs on his proudly-leftfield debut album are defined by their dramatic verbosity and vocal deliveries but are made complete by pulsating sounds, piano, guitars, strings and strange ambiences, which come together like pieces of a mosaic.


There's an unpredictability to the arrangements and delivery of Songs To The Sea; they sway like waves in pensive restraint before surging upwards towards climactic intensity. While the ocean is integral for our survival, our earth-bound biology means we cannot fully immerse ourselves in the life-giving provider that engulfs our planet. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. Likewise, dreams are a cornerstone of the human experience yet are fleeting and intangible. Parallels can be found in Crean's work, which often hangs by invisible threads. "The Water" introduces the album with spoken word that becomes increasingly vulgar as it rises to deafening velocity. The narrator talks of how they looked for meaning in nature but failed because "it's just the fucking sea". Yet, it's not all so esoteric. The cool electric guitar of "Drift" offers some grit as the song slowly burns towards its chaotic peak. The scattershot "Fragments" accurately depicts the bewilderment of dreams ("fragments of a dream I think I had") in an alluring cocktail of adult contemporary and free-form expressionism, which echoes the sonorous orchestral pop of Scott Walker. Also touching on the theme of dreams, "I Wake Up" provides a succinct yet visceral examination of the confusion that arises from passing from dreams to waking life and the otherworldly images from dreams that make indelible marks on our memory. ("An old man talks in tongues outside a burning Greggs"). 

There is a solid artistic sentiment across the collection, like in the cinematic "Just For Now", where Crean showcases his vocal range over sweepingly spatial music. Likewise, the arctic push of "Silence", with its smooth electronic production and soulful singing, alludes to James Blake, but Crean is not an artist easily compared to others. This is also true of the closing track "The Coast" and its short arpeggiated piano lines that hypnotize as Crean sings out an intimate lament on the antagonisms of a perforated world, an album highlight for this reviewer.   

Songs To The Sea is oceanic in purview, not only in theme but in the wash of instrumentation and styles on offer. The heavy-handed subject matter and delivery make this a complex and serious album; its loyalty to earnestness means it lacks any sense of fun. However, instead of being morose, the album prompts introspection, and its creative approach can inspire those tired of traditional song structures. Though the spoken word sections might distract from the mellifluously opulent music, especially if you're averse to music with elements of drama, they help in worldbuilding by providing exposition and context for Crean's often vague and mystical songs. Like getting lost at sea or a vivid dream, Songs To The Sea is a testament to the escapist capabilities of art.