Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy purportedly once said that there were only two subjects worth writing about; life and death. So much the better for Jamie Cameron, the primary lyricist behind duo The Last Dinosaur, who elegantly tackles both those familiar subjects in his scintillating opus, ‘The Nothing’. This collection of songs constitutes a masterclass in the subtle power of understatement, of how more can be said with less. A word of warning – this isn’t the easiest listen, either sonically, or emotionally, but the payoff is most definitely worth it.
Some records are written and recorded within a matter of months; artists who work in this fashion often claim it helps them keep fresh. ‘The Nothing’ is not a record of this type, having been lovingly assembled over the course of eight long years. Appropriately so, since the central theme of the album is the grief induced by a traumatic event from Cameron’s youth, namely the death of his closest friend in a car accident. Broaching such a subject is not easy, and it is no surprise that a significant length of time elapsed before Cameron felt ready to articulate his feelings. The result – a body of work that quietly and maturely functions as catharsis. Cameron doesn’t feel the need for theatricality to let his feelings out – he simply states them as they are, and they feel all the more real and powerful for it.
Musically, it is undeniable that The Last Dinosaur are both keenly aware of their heritage, but also irrepressibly forward-thinking. They manage to incorporate an eye-watering range of influences and textures, from gentle ambient soundscapes, jazzy aleatoric chromaticism and obliquely-voiced string harmonies (multi-tracked on the viola by the fabulously talented chamber musician Rachel Lanskey), through to simple Dylan-esque acoustic folk. Most impressive though is the laser-like focus with which these different textures are singularly applied to the raw emotional subject matter. There is no time for gimmickry or pretension – in other words – The Last Dinosaur manage to be experimental whilst also retaining breathtaking beauty and simplicity, a rare feat indeed.
The album is structured following a “two song followed by an instrumental” format, leading to a pleasing delineation of sections. We begin with ‘Atoms’, ‘Grow’ and ‘The National Stage’. ‘Atoms’ begins with the sound of a man shuffling in a chair before the delicate plucking of an acoustic guitar – an intentionally lo-fi moment that nicely contrasts with the immaculate production of the rest of the album. ‘Atoms’ carefully uses gentle percussion to amplify the intimacy of the mood generated by the Mark Linkous/Elliott Smith style whisper vocals. It defies conventional verse-chorus-verse structure, instead offering a building meditation tastefully laden with luscious viola chords followed by a gentle spillover of verbiage. ‘Grow’ provides a more conventional acoustic ballad structure, using hi-lo double tracked vocals and clever lyricism to great effect. However, just when you think you understand the song, it catches you off guard with a swelling viola dominated coda that could be straight out of a modern classical composition, cleverly heralding the next track. “The National Stage” is most boldly unconventional piece on the first side, drawing from ambient music – deathly quiet strings, electronic beeps, percussion and even the sounds of nature itself – to conjure an opioid haze of warmth. The track builds from pure texture to a beautifully harmonised melody, accompanied by the sound of wind chimes. The whole thing has the feel of something delicate and beautiful emerging from a chrysalis, a metaphor that could easily be applied to the record as a whole. Arthouse movie soundtrack stuff – high concept, but deeply beautiful.
Up next are ‘All My Faith’ and ‘We’ll Greet Death’, both of which seem remarkably upbeat considering their subject matter. ‘All My Faith’, in particular, is laden with a rather grandiose texture and chord progression, whilst ‘We’ll Greet Death’ features an ear-catching jazzy saxophone interlude. Moments of atonality and chromaticism breach the surface betraying the apparent optimism of the arrangement and hinting something less balanced lies beneath the surface here. Rounding out this section of three, we have ‘The Body Collapse’, another textural instrumental driven by a harmonically ambiguous piano ostinato that allows a multiplicity of possible interpretations. The track finishes with an ominous synth swell that left me with the disconcerting feeling that I was hearing a sonic representation of the moment when the lights go out in someone’s eyes.
The second side begins with ‘I Couldn’t Wait’, a folksy little number that introduces some much needed dynamic contrast. I can’t help but feel a little fatigued by the “softly-softly” vocal style by this point in the album – perhaps this track could have done with a more traditional approach – but the melodies are pleasing. ‘Wings’ seems altogether more suited to the whispering vocals, and continues the theme of increased dynamic contrast. Again we feature a viola-led coda, but this time it seems more emotionally raw and complex rather than elegiac. ‘On Water’ is the final instrumental number, its title and timbre hinting at the aquaplaning that Cameron’s car underwent moments before the collision. Of the three instrumentals, it seems the most pedestrian at first listen, although its subtleties begin to emerge on repeat listens.
We close out the album with ‘The Sea’ and ‘Goodnight’. ‘The Sea’ begins lightly enough with harmonics and an atmospheric sound that evokes images of misty mornings in arctic seas but quickly tacks into rougher waters, introducing a discordant chord progression and uncharacteristically tasty beats that I’d recommend sampling for a conscious hip-hop track, if you were that way inclined. The polyrhythmic feel induces a churn that makes me feel a little uneasy. This is cleverly coupled to reverb drenched pick scrapes that sound almost like the squawks of distant birds, allowing the song to paint its nautical landscape in realistically detailed strokes. ‘Goodnight’ rounds off the album with a warm, feedback-laden lullaby – the kind of thing you might listen to whilst trying to deal with a gentle comedown. The textures are beautiful, but there is a lack of melodic structure or flow here – the song works nicely at the end of this album, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to function as a standalone.
To conclude, this is not a flawless record, and it is not a record for everyone. It is however, a very good record – one that dares to be bold, both emotionally and instrumentally, and for the large part succeeds in realising its grand ambitions. Cameron is not possessed of a powerful voice, but he uses what he has to great effect, writing to his strengths. Indeed, this record shines when the disparate textural elements combine to focus on genuinely beautiful melodies. The standout tracks are ‘The National Stage’ and ‘Wings’; although several other songs have moments that threaten to eclipse these, I felt they were the most internally self consistent works on the record, and that they showcased The Last Dinosaur’s unique approach to greatest effect. All in all – this is definitely worth investing your time in. One can only hope that The Last Dinosaur’s next offering is not so long in coming.
The Last Dinosaur’s forthcoming album ‘The Nothing’ is to be released on 7th July 2017 via Naim Records.