There’s always been a certain appeal in Foy Vance’s reclusiveness. Despite working and occasionally touring with heavyweights like Ed Sheeran, Elton John, Kacey Musgraves, and Alicia Keys, the Northern Irish musician prefers to keep a healthy aloofness from the industry, doing his own thing on his own time.
It’s hard to argue with the results, which are often spectacular, as anyone familiar with his work is well aware. It’s an approach that works to his advantage on his latest offering, Signs of Life (★★★★☆), the product of months of self-reflection.
Like so many albums that have come out in the past year, Signs of Life was assembled in the relative stillness and isolation of 2020. It bears signs of a pandemic and a world in tumult, but even more so into Vance’s own concurrent personal struggle. “Sapling,” the first single, opens the album with a cathartic swell of emotion and captures the spirit of renewal that Vance brought into writing and recording the album.
A runaway hit that racked up streams all summer, it handily captures the tone of the album and is a window into Vance’s mental state at the time as he attempted to turn around a problematic relationship with drugs and alcohol.
Despite hitting the same stomp-clap beats as “Sapling,” the single “Time Stand Still” rings more thematically hollow and fails to capture the same cathartic magic, but Signs of Life is much more than a vehicle for its radio-friendly, folk rock singles. Its real gems can be found scattered in between, some of them unfolding more slowly and rewarding a more attentive listen.
Vance patiently builds tension and uncertainty in “Roman Attack” before it bursts without warning into the chorus. “People are Pills,” on the other hand, is Vance at his most wry and charmingly misanthropic, singing “People are pills, I can’t always swallow.”
Ultimately, the magic holding Signs of Life together is Vance’s songwriting. His digressions on “System” and “Hair of the Dog” demand attention and keep those tracks interesting when they might otherwise end up plodding. On a casual listen, the nuance and finesse that Vance brings to tracks like the album closer “Percolate” could easily be missed.
Closing out the album on a song about facing his father’s death two decades on proves to be a powerful choice, leaving Signs of Life on a lingering note of uncertainty and telegraphing Vance’s lack of closure.
A welcome reorientation for Vance, Signs of Life is in some ways a lucky quirk of timing that he brought out an album about resurrection just in time to hit the road with it. When he brings it on tour, the songs will no doubt travel well with his knack for live performance and the energy and stage presence he will bring to them. Whether live or solo, though, the well-crafted and intimate album is a welcome sign that Vance is back on his game.
Signs of Life is available on streaming platforms and for purchase. Visit www.foyvance.com.
Vance will perform locally in Alexandria at The Birchmere on May 10, 2022. Tickets on sale now at www.birchmere.com.
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