Strange indeed. Philip Selway, the Radiohead man with the post-Thom Yorke collaborating plan, is charting his own course. Like a fearless explorer armed with decades of experience and a grappling hook made of character references from bandmates, Selway explores his own self-worth and collects nice details on his fifth solo pursuit. Strange Dance is, well, the title gives it away. A strange dance. Forty-seven minutes of chamber pop exploration. Head in knowing nothing about it. Be that explorer Selway wants you to be. Or believes himself to be as he cracks open the piano, the pattering of electronics that come through like a buzzing insect, it all layers itself nicely on this one. Immediate strokes of paranoid fear of belief come through on Little Things and set the tone swiftly.
Selway is not swift in taking his audience anywhere. Methodical strokes, pauses between instrumental switches, Strange Dance wears the listener down mentally and emotionally. Considered and slow-paced beats, their self-doubt and anxieties bubbling to a crooning surface. Selway sees this record as Carole King meets Daphne Oram. What that means for the layman is nothing. What it means for self-righteous critics is also nothing. This is no Tapestry meets space-age sonic references of BBC documentarians. In fact, it is far from anything. Selway is keen and well-versed in some stringent instrumentals, often feeling as though they fall just short of minimalist. Little Things and What Keeps You Awake At Night administer those slower tones, the delicate whispers of Selway a nice touch that keep simpler forms of string sections together.
Where does Selway’s desire take a listener, though? It is hard to knock back the empty string claims when his bridges and lengthy instrumentals are taken up by highly strung beasts with no motion. Broad strokes of optimism and hopefulness shimmer through on Check For Signs Of Life and the mood collapses with Selway fronting Picking Up Pieces. He has shattered the hopeful-if-shaky introduction to his work with a fairly withering experience that unfurls the album like a sloppy and upsetting lookback. His shift to softer piano ballads with The Other Side, the reassurances of holding back the anxieties of the modern world, are unconvincing. Selway runs out of steam astonishingly fast. Strange Dance needs to pick a lane. For all the moments where it sounds run of the mill, as though Selway is strangling his creativity, it booms back through. The title track is a grand example of maintaining a flagging feeling, of bringing it back into focus.
But it does not last long, the whines and cries befitting of a Peter Gabriel B-Side are no match. His tracks struggle with their length and when the cut-off comes, it has already exposed Selway’s trouble. For all the rising strings, the high-pitched notes and the screeches throughout, he has failed to adapt them to a consistent turn, a boiling point is not reached by the similar structures and the observations of mystic art pop soundscapes. Strange Dance struggles to maintain its movement, its groove and uniqueness traded out for what Selway believes will work, rather than what has a chance at being a boom of fluid and ever-so-slightly shadowy creativity. Pieces are there. Some of it even lingers on in closing duo Salt Air and There’ll Be Better Days, but let us hope for the latter in Selway’s future efforts.