Frontman, singer and songwriter Nigel Chapman gives himself a good talking to on Snapshot of a Beginner, the new album by Nap Eyes. And what he tells himself is something that we all might learn from too.
This is the fourth album in eight years from the band based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As ever, the songs are based on Chapman’s free-verse poetry that he lays down in concentrated writing sessions with no instruments, before they’re shaped into song by him and his bandmates: Seamus Dalton on drums, Joshua Salter on bass guitar, and Brad Loughead on guitar. The lyrics are inward-looking and typically self-deprecating, and when teamed with rather minimal arrangements they’ve turned the band into an indie-rock cult favorite.
This time around they’ve enlisted a couple of outside hands for production and arrangement, Jonathan Low and James Elkington, who adds his own strong hand at guitar plus a bunch of keyboards, pedal steel, and percussion. The result is the most sonically adventurous of Nap Eyes’ albums. They’re not quite so minimal this time ’round. But fear not, long-time fans, it all serves the songs well.
The album opens with “So Tired,” in which Chapman gives himself that talking to. It’s a deliberately paced song, the tempo reflecting the deliberate lyrics. “Nigel you’re so scared / Of people trying to control your life and / Criticize you / Change what you do,” he begins, and the tune rises to a soaring guitar solo as he admits “I am so tired of trying to prove it to you.”
For me, the album revolves around the song “Mystery,” which finds Chapman musing about his muse and the mystery of artistic creation and expression. “Should I let it in,” he asks himself, regarding that mystery that’s knocking at his door.
Is there a chance I could be wrong?
Is there a chance I should just forget about my song?
I’ve got some work to do today
Not the kind that’s fun to play …
The song is set in a languid, steady, slow shuffle, its atmosphere dominated by reverberating guitar, with piano, bass and drums adding stop-start syncopation. Chapman in his unschooled vocal style ponders whether to write a song or do the hard work of self-analysis, or just procrastinate everything. In the end, he just says “Don’t give up on me, I won’t give up on you.” In the very next song “Fool Thinking Ways” he examines the nature of epiphany and the way the changes wrought by sudden flashes of insight never seem to last.
This back and forth, the slow struggle to improve or just make good decisions on a daily basis, seems to spring from Chapman’s longtime daily practice of tai chi, and its echo in the rhythms of a musician’s life. Struggle to bring forth art, then long stretches on the road perfecting those songs, then back home to start over again from the beginning. “The fact that you’ll never reach some idealized goal of self-mastery is exciting and a very good thing,” Chapman says of both his musical and meditative endeavors. “It’s necessary to be patient and to accept whatever’s happening now. Whatever you understand today, there will always be much more to learn, and so there’s not much cause for either self-congratulation or self-negation.”
Chapman ponders all manner of deep subjects mostly in musical settings that are upbeat. “Primorial Soup” is a delightful song that bops along with happy guitar chords as Chapman first ponders the evolution of life in the world, and then the conflict between those who see the hand of a god in that world and those who don’t. He finds himself in the latter camp.
The album stomps out on a high note, musically anyway. “Though I Wish I Could” is a chugging rocker with tons of righteous electric guitar noise, keyboards, synths, I’m not sure what all. Lyrically, Chapman goes in circles of self-critique that are sometimes quite funny. He spends the first several lines dithering about the construction of his songs and how he avoids difficult chords that are hard to play … and then starts beating himself up for making his songwriting process the subject of his songs. Meta-textual songs are rarely this witty and entertaining. These guys from Nova Scotia are nothing if not entertaining.
(Jagjaguwar / Royal Mountain / Paradise of Bachelors, 2020)