As the last millennium drew to its close, Conrad Lambert, aka Merz, seemed poised for The Big Time. Signed for a six-figure advance to a major label, his debut had excited widespread critical acclaim, drawing comparisons with Beck and Badly Drawn Boy for the way it blended intelligent, folksy songwriting with carefully sculpted arrangements involving an array of electronics, brass, strings and found sounds, alongside the basic rock instrumentation. For a while, his became the name to drop, and his music exerted a quiet hold over Jarvis Cocker, Pete Tong and Chris Martin.
Then... nothing. Reluctant to grind his art away in the manner desired by the record company, he backed out of the lucrative deal and wound up on the dole in his hometown of Huddersfield - an experience he likens to " going right back to square one on the snakes-and-ladders board". That it was the right decision is confirmed by Loveheart, his belated follow-up album, whose gentle power envelops the listener like a blanket. It could catch the ear of those that keep Melua, Blunt and Gray atop the charts, though there's much more of interest happening here.
Co-produced by Bruno Ellingham, the arrangements are subtly compelling constructions, drawing on whatever seems apt in each case: strolling piano lines and wheezes of organ for Postcard from a Dark Star; courtly harpsichord for Dangerous Heady Love Scheme; harp and/or oud for Verily; acoustic guitar, wistful melodica and wisps of synthesiser for The Leaving Song (Yorkshire Traction). Sounds are layered in an organic, patinated manner with the squeak of fingers on fretboard as important an element of "My Name is Sad and at Sea" as the guitar part itself, or the ghostly bells and bowed bass that accompany it. Despite the diversity of settings, it all hangs together as a unified whole, not least because Lambert's songs all share a mood of introspective uncertainty regarding the wider world. On the one hand, he's repulsed by popular culture, on the other, he's desperate to be part of a larger community. "I'm on a rock, I'm not on a road to anywhere," he admits in Postcard.
Not that he'll be there indefinitely, as he acknowledges in "The Leaving Song": "I'm leaving this garden so delicate/What can I offer it?". On this showing, a great deal.
DOWNLOAD THIS: 'Postcard from a Dark Star'; 'Dangerous Heady Love Scheme'; 'Verily'; 'My Name is Sad and at Sea'