A New International: ‘Lost And Later Songs’

Impressed by their work so far, Nick Myles assesses the idiosyncratic Scottish Indie/Pop band A New International’s latest release.

First came 2015’s Come to the Fabulon, a beguiling feast of Gypsy-tinged romances. Then in 2019, The Dark Carnival was a wittily macabre musical about the dead and the near-dead set in and below a Glaswegian graveyard. Now, A New International are back with a double album (“It’s twins!” as the publicity excitedly puts it) of tracks completed during lockdown but composed across a period spanning 1997-2021. Will Lost and Later Songs maintain the high quality of this gang of Scottish troubadours’ work to date?

Lost and Later Songs – cover art – image of Chicago Auditorium Theatre by Matthew Gilson

Opening number Loverboy sets the bar high early, with singer/songwriter Biff Smith’s woozy vocals swirling dramatically over keyboards, strings and a giddy guitar riff. Lyrically, it comes from the borderline threatening perspective of a prior amour invoking his ex to “Remember me! Remember me”, with Smith’s tone delivering a juicy hint of malevolence.

Next comes the delightfully floaty Ghost Light, followed by the gentle, intimate serenade of Drunk is a Holiday and the piano-led delicacy of Yesterday’s Already Light Years Away. Within the span of these four songs A New International establish one of their strongest musical suits: an ability to range across diverse styles with no dip in quality whatsoever. One minute the songs are touchingly melancholic, the next exploding with a twisted lust for life. But whatever the feel or the format of the songs, they all land with absolute certainty.

In terms of musical palette, Lost and Later Songs provides an exhilarating variety. Keyboards are a stronger presence than previously, with an array of synths, organs and pianos (electric and otherwise) abounding, but you’re never far from an astute guitar lick or a violin line judiciously chosen to add an extra note of grace to the proceedings. Smith has an uncanny gift for coming up with immediately impactful and memorable melodic riffs, which he twins with perfectly complementary vocals.

Thematically, I’d say the album(s) cover two main areas. There are several narratives of outsider love: attractions which may not be mutual, are possibly transgressive in one way or another, but are definitely heartfelt from the perspective of the protagonist – character sketches which Smith delivers with relish and sincerity. And then there is another strand which I can probably best summarise as Odes of Compassion: songs emanating kindness… to the lonely, the less fortunate, to the hurt and vulnerable, which of course is frequently we ourselves.

Back to the tracks… After the noble tribute of Ride the White Horses comes the gloriously upbeat What You Came For, laden with harmonies and brimful of joy. Then we hit the hedonistic romp of Something of the Night, in which Smith’s sleazy narrator insists on the value of temptation: “Let me tell you a little secret: I’m an angel in disguise. I could sell you one home truth, or a bumper pack of lies.” I’m not quite sure what’s on offer, but I don’t think it would take much for my curiosity to get the better of me.

Next up is first single Swirly, boasting another in a miraculously consistent stream of killer guitar riffs, with Mark McSwiggan also contributing an epic solo – check out the wonderful Zoom-era video for some beautiful air-guitar from other band members. It’ll make you smile.

Following the blissed-out lilt of Everything’s Alright Fine comes instrumental track Intermission, layered keyboards guiding us towards the end of Volume 1, maybe encouraging us to grab an ice cream or some popcorn before the start of the second half…

If anything, Volume 2 is an even more varied collection of songs. After the toe-tapping stroll of A Chemical Dream, we have latest single What Boys Do, possibly A New International’s most bombastic track to date: a feelgood anthem seemingly celebrating a would-be lover’s “one shot – a long shot – at glory”.

The yearning fantasia of Starship International is followed by the most atypical track of the album(s). Boom Boom Cannonball reminded me of the first time I heard Leonard Cohen’s Jazz Police, in which the Canadian romantic suddenly drops the poetic charm and starts going on about murdering turtles. In this case, Smith’s vocal utilizes a gloriously lascivious grumble over a dementedly pumping accompaniment as he informs us: “I’ll eat you for breakfast, I’ll eat you for lunch, I’ll keep some for dinner, and a midnight munch.” Should we be flattered, or edging nervously towards the nearest exit?

The Strangest Thing is a mysteriously poised elegy enquiring “Who will be the one?”, Freediving explores an excess of devotion, and then we reach the one cover version: Those First Impressions by Billy Mackenzie’s The Associates. It’s a beautiful re-imagining of the track, which becomes a stately torch song on which Smith’s falsetto is a sound so evocative and human that it effortlessly pierces the soul.

Drawing us towards the end of Lost and Later Songs, The Night Will Take You sets off at an enticing rolling pace that builds to a seductive climax. “Is this breakthrough or falling?” keens Smith, once more demonstrating his gift for lyrical ambiguity to superb effect.

Finally, another instrumental – Lost and Later Theme – is a fairground waltz that invites you to sit back and sigh in satisfaction as Lost and Later Songs gradually unfurls the last of its magic.

Some of you may be frowning, stroking your chins and thinking “What’s happened to the Nick Myles we knew of old? The nit-picking hyper-critical grouch who could always find something negative to say? Surely he’s got something mean to add?”

Well, not really. Sorry.

Okay, so if you flung me roughly to the ground, pinned me down and squeezed your knee hard into my plums I might – after a struggle – concede that personally I could do with slightly less prominent keyboards. And maybe a few more up-tempo numbers in the mix. But no amount of playground torture would induce me to nominate any tracks to drop in order to tweak the balance to my personal taste. I’ve seen Sophie’s Choice and I don’t intend to put myself through that anguish.

A New International – band photo – images by Craig Laurie and Zoom

Simply put, Lost and Later Songs is the sound of an exceptional band rising to the top of their game. Smith’s always stirring vocals seem even more striking and versatile than before, showcasing a range that spans from a gruff and growly lower register through a commanding baritone croon and up to an ethereal falsetto. The song writing is impeccably accomplished and surprising, and the band’s musicianship is flawless: feather-light when it needs to be, tight and forceful when the songs require a little more muscle. All these elements combine to create 10 tracks of superlative quality.

So good I cried.

❉ ‘Lost And Later Songs’ was released by A New International on 14 October 2022. Available via Bandcamp as a Digital Album or Limited edition double CD. Socials: Facebook / Twitter / TumblrFor more information, visit www.anewinternational.com 

❉  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles

Become a patron at Patreon!