Almost locally renown for “taking his time” between releases, Belfast-based singer-songwriter Robyn G Shiels is equally – ever increasingly – justified in biding his time as a consummate, altogether important artist. As the very best wine cannot possibly stem from a rushed harvest, similarly Shiels possesses an instinctive knack for seeing the brilliant fruits of his labour (experience, regret and alleviation) arrive in their destined condition at the most appropriate time. Little over a quarter of an hour in length, his new EP, Underneath The Night of Stars, is Shiels’ present-day distillation of this fact.
Emerging quietly via a slowly strummed C#, the title track classically unravels in a manner that, whilst brooding in its bearing and narrative, is far from despondent in the classic sense of the word. “There’s no anger, just a curious rage,” Shiels twangs, Ellen Turley’s delicate harmonies serving to simmer the thinly-veiled despair in Shiels’ furrow-browed admissions throughout. With an almost optimistic chord progression simultaneously enhancing and going against his unwinding narrative, Shiels admits without hesitation: “Loneliness is a constant friend.” Whereas many lesser singer-songwriters would painstakingly search for characteristically melancholic chordal transitions at the expense of what they are otherwise unable to say, this opening track defines Shiels’ masterful, major chorded approach.
Whilst there was very little room to attest thoughts to the contrary before, Underneath The Night of Stars confirms that Shiels’ songs snipe rather than ambush; his carefully considered words stood all but mantra-like like in their metre, poise and intent. Just as marked, summoning a deeply familiar voice in the sheer warmth of his delivery, there can be no chasm between his words and the average person’s understanding of them – the hidden truths of innumerable “normal” lives, happy or indeed sad to the outside eye, are uttered by Shiels in placid streams of almost emotionally omniscient lyricism.
Where the two-minute ‘Upon Such Things’ is a practically buoyant dose of Americana-tinged folk, imbued with a very tangible sense of nostalgic creedence reminiscent of Sparklehorse, mid-EP highlight ‘If Now Is An Echo’ is more akin to American slowcore pioneers Codeine and Red House Painters in the breadth of its exquisitely-crafted desolation. Slowly charging forth rather than just plodding by, the wonderfully-timed cymbal crashes of original Therapy? drummer Fyfe Ewing, subtle accordion lines and almost glacial guitar arpeggios coalesce to underpin Shiels words. “Nothing is said but goodbyes,’ he yields here, yet another terse one-liner that weighs heavy despite its brevity.
Recorded by long-time friend and collaborator Ben McAuley (who also provides guitars and drums) Underneath The Night Of Stars neither meanders nor loses its way over five tracks. Indeed, whereas Shiels’ (nevertheless superb) 2010 EP The Great Depression delivered some fine moments, the final two tracks on offer here – ‘Damn That Ruthless Hour’ and ‘A Man To Your Wife’ – bear an air of pure confidence and conviction that lingers, immersive in the ear, just after listening. Whereas the former song’s chorus courses with radiant tautology, the latter is a tale and no mistake. “Is your heaven as clear as your conscience?” Shiels asks from the off, just his voice and his braying acoustic chords. One can’t help but think if writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road) had chose instrument over pen, this what it would have sounded like. Agelessness, barrenness, God, etc.
Despite feeling perhaps a little fleeting at a mere fifteen minutes, this would-be fault is, when viewed from a more general perspective, crucial to the unwavering impressionability of the EP as a filler-free collection of songs. Just as Shiels is no hurry to satisfy the whims of time, to the utmost benefit of his reputation, give the best of us five songs comprised of “three chords of truth” like Underneath The Night of Stars and very few complaints will be made. A mini-masterpiece? Yes. No question at all. Brian Coney
Out now via No Dancing/Third Bar | www.rgshiels.com/
Watch the video to ‘Upon Such Things’ below.