Harley Alexander has always been a bit of a wacky cat. When he was putting out records under the name Sheepman – the most notable being last year’s full-length Cold Feet In The Heat – he would often flit between voices, rhythms, and songwriting styles. For just one example of how far Alexander can spread himself stylistically, see the Chetwynd cassingle: the A-side, a short and goofy semi-salsa trifle; the B-side, “Buffalo Bill”, an epically mournful bummer of a song, with so much space and build that by the time it reaches its crashing finish it sounds absolutely gigantic.
And there’s also the fact that the first ever Sheepman track was called “God is An Alien (And So is Santa)”. So, like…he’s a tough guy to pin down. But throughout all of the Sheepman releases, at the center of them was always Alexander’s dextrous guitar-work and incredibly malleable voice. This is exactly what made Cold Feet In The Heat such a compelling record, and one that’s easy to keep returning to over a year later – the fact that Alexander could sound like three different bands over three songs could feel patchy over a full-length album if it wasn’t for the fact that these particular talents always remained the indelible centre of it.
Universal Love, Alexander’s first record released under his own name, doesn’t necessarily find him abandoning the varied sonic palette of the Sheepman records, but it does feature a stronger focus on tying all those loose threads together. Universal Love is a much more cohesive whole not because Alexander has settled on a single sound, but because he’s found a way to incorporate all the ones he used to play with one at a time into an incredibly colourful but uncrowded whole. It’s somehow both his lightest and most substantial record yet, and it’s also his best.
As always, the focus at the centre of it all is Alexander’s glistening guitar and voice. And what a voice indeed – sometimes it’s a frantic wail, sometimes a tender croon, others a deep moan. Sometimes it takes on this intentionally fake-sounding authoritative bark. On tracks like “Eric Breezy” and “F Da Man”, he’ll effortlessly glide between several or all of these over the course of one song, layering them into truly clever and elaborate arrangements whether they be harmonies, call-and-response sections, or atmospheric cooing in the background.
The album is excellent all over, overflowing with great ideas and oddball humour, but its with the final two songs – probably the finest Alexander’s ever written – that it reaches its peak. The title track, a sunny ode to friendship full of fingersnaps and bongos, features a lovely restrained vocal that reminds you once more that despite the fact that he spends most of the album juggling voices that some might find a little gratingly unnatural, when it comes down to it the dude can sing. And “Borgfest”, steeped in the kind of weird grandeur that permeated some of the best Sheepman songs, is a full-on anthem of positivity, featuring lyrics so absurdly, sweepingly hopeful as “Let’s bring equality to the world tonight” that you might find them hilarious if Alexander didn’t deliver them with such sweetly sincere conviction.
When an artist abandons an old project and launches a new one, it usually would imply some kind of change in direction or intent. So now that Alexander’s abandoned the Sheepman alias, should we expect anything entirely unprecedented from a record bearing his real name? Not really, but also, kind of. The archness and the pop sensibilities are still there, but Universal Love marks and celebrates a tiny rebirth. The album’s pronounced focus on good vibes seems to suggest that something has happened to Alexander in the last year – the kind of event that pushes you to the kind of blissful plateau where the loose fun and sense of constant discovery that the songs of Universal Love are infused with comes so easily. Perhaps he’s fallen in love. Whatever his epiphany may have been, it’s caused him to make one of the most wondrously positive feel-good pop records to come along in a while.
Top Tracks: “Universal Love”, “Borgfest”, “F Da Man”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)