Review – “Unreal” – James Irwin

UNREALreviewed by Michael Thomas

The line between genres has become so blurred that to call James Irwin “electro-folk” or some other name would do his music a great disservice. Sure, the way he talks about historical figures like Sam Cooke might suggest his songs could be played on acoustic guitar around a campfire, and the music of Unreal has a lot of synthesizers in it, but let’s just say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Irwin has effectively carved out a niche. While Western Transport, his debut album, saw a lot of dependence on the old acoustic guitar, Unreal throws any rules of composition out the window.

Songs like “Siberia China” and “Sahra” almost harken back to the days of his debut, but even they become something new with the strength of his backing band. “Siberia China” features some ghostly wails and synths in the background, making it a surprisingly warm number. and after the wonderful line “You’re always so happy on the first day it snows” the music gets a little more jagged. “Sahra” is the perfect way to draw the album to a close, with its lullaby quality.

But for every lower-tempo song there’s one that ups the energy. “Michigan Miami” is a folk song in rock’s clothing, with crunchier guitars and pounding drums (though it’s hard not to hear this song without thinking of “I Melt With You“). “Walls Around Nothing” is deliciously adventurous in its guitar-and-sax-based melody that gets more majestic as the sax gets it time to shine. Every word sounds that much more powerful, like “I think I know how to touch you now.”

Some of the songs are meditations on a theme. “Do You Know Who Shot Sam?” was inspired by the death of the legendary Sam Cooke, as Irwin explained at his Toronto release show. “A Wave is a Wild Thing” is all about just letting things go. The acoustic guitar and big synths are the anchors here, and it eventually builds to big lines like “I thought often of death, now it’s the last thing on my mind.”

The crown jewel of the album is undoubtedly its opener, as well as a single Irwin released last year, “Everything Passed Me By.” The smooth synth-and-sax melody will immediately wedge itself in your head, and his stream-of-consciousness lyrics about being just one step behind are infinitely relatable.

At nine songs, the album packs enough temptation to leave listeners coming back for multiple helpings.

Top Tracks: “Everything Passed Me By”; “Walls Around Nothing”

Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good) + *swoop*

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