ALBUM REVIEW: Jamie Lenman – ‘The Atheist’

Artwork for Jamie Lenman’s ‘The Atheist’ - an illustrated map of an island shaped like Jamie Lenman’s head

Everyone loves Jamie Lenman. At least, you do if you’re in any proximity to UK alt-rock and post-hardcore scenes, where the genealogy of Reuben persists to this very day. And it’s good to see how that appreciation has continued deep into Lenman’s solo work, even when the explicit emphasis is made on sounding nothing like those Reuben days. That can largely be attributed to Lenman himself and the figure he casts, of the ever-humble, ever-creative artist operating completely independent of trends or the music industry’s more oppressive bureaucracies. With a debut solo release like Muscle Memory—a hefty double album of separate hardcore and jazz discs—it was never like Lenman would keep to the easy path and just play the game.

But then again, when Lenman does decide to embrace some of his more melodic rock impulses, it’s not that much of a surprise. They’re what characterised most of Reuben’s work to phenomenal effect, and the same with his own Devolver and King Of Clubs releases. So in explicitly citing indie-rock and indie-pop on The Atheist, itdoesn’t have to be some scary cause for alarm, and it does say a lot that such responses have been pleasantly absent from this album’s conversation, far more so than would be the case for other artists inevitably. Lenman’s chameleonic tendencies have yielded empirical evidence that he can do pretty much any style well, and the trust that he can pull it off is very much present.

That said, for what might be Lenman’s most straightforward solo venture to date, The Atheist doesn’t quite see that consolidated into greater punch, or at least not totally. There’s definitely a feel of hemming in across this album, in the way that Lenman’s wild creative streaks don’t pop out as much, or how the tones and ideas in general do feel more safely constrained in the indie-rock box. And yet, despite all of that, the magic of one of the UK’s absolute best is strong enough to penetrate through; it mightn’t be his best album but the undeniability remains in spades, still towering, clever and heartfelt enough to chalk up yet another net win, across yet another of rock’s mediums.

It’s telling in that regard that, even with notable restraint onboard, The Atheist isn’t lacking in terms of the hooks you’d expect. Lenman’s knack for a killer chorus has been well-documented for years, and arguably, with less stylistic meat in the way, they come with a brightness embellishing the big, Weezer-esque strokes of Talk Hard, or the breezy, spacious alt-rock of Deep Down and Song On My Tongue. At times, The Atheist brings out an exuberance in Lenman that really hasn’t been seen to this extent before, and the pivot taken feels natural among it. The shades of indie-rock used are those traced back to Lenman’s 2000s contemporaries, thus not excessively far outside of his wheelhouse, nor a one-for-one retreading of his own previous works.

Though, it does need to be said that The Atheist is at its absolute strongest when those more contemplative or intelligent impulses rear their head once more, and a lot of the time, that involves the greatest distance from this album’s particular indie banner. It’s highlighted rather starkly, when stronger, more resilient moments emerge from the strings and bells among the grander sway of Hospital Tree, or the ever-cranking tension on the excellent This Town Will Never Let Us Go. They’re the songs that feel the most applicable to the style that Lenman has laid down over the years, namely from a creative angle that can find the flexibility in some otherwise rudimentary raw materials. That’s not to say the more straight-laced indie fare is bad, but the difference in muscle behind it is hard to just overlook.

It leaves The Atheist as a bit lopsided and uneven overall, nowhere near as piecemeal as his Shuffle project but a smidge patchier than what’s often delivered from Lenman. Though, how much of a nitpick that is really depends on how deep you’re willing to go. Most of the time, the hooks truly do speak for themselves, and Lenman has such a warm, affable demeanour that it’s tough to leave any one of these songs with complete distaste. Maybe the closest it gets is with The Wedding Ring, though that’s much more a personal preference of the hollower production and far-back vocal style never properly gelling. Otherwise, the overall sound is really quite good; it’s decidedly no-frills for much of it, but there’s some lovely warmth in the guitars and bass, and the clarity of the mix doesn’t go unnoticed either. It’s that lack of clutter in the sound that yields a really pleasant result, especially on songs like This Is All There Is and Lena Don’t Leave Me that can prioritise their forwardness and hit with stunning efficiency.

In fact, that’s always been an underrated strength of Lenman’s work—he knows how to do a whole lot with relatively little, and that’s probably where The Atheist shines the most consistently. It’s lacking a bit of cohesion here and there but no one part is ever puffing to catch up with another, largely because it’s kept sharp and stripped-down by design. As the for the writing that opts for a similar creative philosophy, it’s perhaps a bit more fragmented in terms of theme, but for Lenman’s more vulnerable and personal viewpoints, it’s an effective vehicle overall. As ever, it’s his gift for a knockout lyric that helps out the most (the album’s very first line is “You really think that there’s a heaven and hell? / Well, maybe there’s a planet Krypton as well”, and it’s a hard one to beat for the duration), and you find that does a lot to augment the more honest style he’s going for. He’s cognisant of his own flaws on Lena Don’t Leave Me and Bad Friend, as well as his place amid a decaying urban landscape on This Town Will Never Let Us Go, and knowing how to punch those ideas up does so much for them, on this album specifically.

Because what defines The Atheist—or more accurately, its greatest successes—is how deeply the creative mind of Jamie Lenman informs what’s produced. In lesser hands, this would almost certainly seem like a downgrade, easing off into less fertile, less diverse territory overall, and feeling a bit haphazard in how it’s approached. But when there’s an ear for melody as keen as Lenman’s is, and the creative insatiability that’s always ticking away, even just in the background, the difference is indeed blatant. It’s still hard not to compare it to what came previously, in which any sort of excellence on The Atheist is significantly more fleeting, but it was also never going to be an outright failure either. That’s not in Lenman’s nature as an artist (hell, even Shuffle was at least conceptually interesting), and a streamlined, comparatively simplistic album can still occasionally still strike gold with someone like that at the helm.

For fans of: The Automatic, Reuben, The Futureheads

‘The Atheist’ by Jamie Lenman is released on 25th November on Big Scary Monsters.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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