I’m not sure of the exact circumstances – and frankly the details are none of my, nor indeed your, business – but I get the impression that the rivers of Thomas White’s life were not flowing calmly in the time leading up to the recording of Yalla! You can quickly gather, if you listen closely enough, that words were said, feelings were hurt and relationships were strained; quite possibly even torn apart which can never be an easy thing to deal with.
Living amidst the burning embers of a number of emotional bridges can be difficult for anyone to come to terms with. Many of us have been in similar situations, I’m sure. Sometimes, the only way to make sense of yourself and your environment is to actually get away from it all and let the dust settle, not only back home but in your own mind. Schmaltzy American movies and TV chat show hosts would have you believe that you’re ‘trying to find yourself again’ but really it’s just about getting yourself a bit of space to think and make sense of what’s happened. In Yalla! we find our protagonist Mr White in Dahab*, Egypt, armed only with his trusty guitar and laptop, trying to make sense of his burning embers and the result is a fascinating, insightful, deeply personal and emotional record.
Opener All The Falling Leaves does nothing more than set the scene but it does so wonderfully. It opens like the dawn of a new day, slow and quiet, building up some synth noises until we find Mr White playing an enchanting lullaby of a tune on his guitar. Lyrically, it’s a prime example of just how deceptively simple this album seems at first. The lyrics could easily fit on the back of your average postcard and yet, without ever trying to be profound or elaborate, they quickly introduce you to a man feeling lost and alone, trying to understand how he came to be in the place he finds himself and feeling an emotional pull towards the town he’s just ran away from, which isn’t an easy thing to do in twelve short lines.
I’ll See Her Again is even better. It sets its stall out as a gentle love song, “I met a girl from Western Isles and I’ll see her again” but quickly turns itself into something more caustic and dramatic “On my return, stand and watch the bridges burn.” The spiteful tone of the last few lines works completely against the playful tune and pleasant opening. They totally twist the meaning and intent of the song, making it much more dramatic than it would appear at first glance. It’s a wonderful song, one that catches you unawares. It’s so beautifully and calmly played that it makes the barbed ending all the more sharp, unexpected and unsettling. Again, that’s a hard thing to achieve in under two minutes so well done Mr W.
I feel confident in saying that anyone who ever felt any kind of connection to anything Elliott Smith ever conjured up will feel some kinship with That Heavy Sunshine Sound or Lungful of Air but that’s not to say that this feels like someone trying to copy Smith’s blueprint. That would be doing Mr W a disservice for it’s the quality and strength of the songwriting that truly shines through on Yalla! Ok, we know Mr W is a talented guitar player and the (admittedly gorgeous) backing vocal arrangements add a gentle but well needed depth to the sound but if the songs weren’t strong enough Yalla! would quickly fall flat; instead it soars and improves on every listen. The lyrics are direct, honest and as such easily accessible but that does not mean they are childlike or naïve in any way. In fact, that directness and openness disguises just how clever they are. They’re playfully pieced together and have a rather savage streak of humour running through them. Honestly, lines don’t get much better than “Couldn’t hate you if I tried. Believe me, I did,” as far as I’m concerned. And therein lies the true joy of Yalla! It’s a gentle yet spiky record. It’s an album of love, loss and everything in between. It’s a jumbled up mess of emotions and a perfect accompaniment to any Sunday morning, whether you’re just getting in or just waking up.
Yalla is a very honest, funny and ultimately human record that, once you let it into your life, you may never want to let it go. It may not have all of the answers but yalla, yalla. Come one, come all. It may somehow help you to make sense of it all and for that alone Mr White, we are very thankful.
* SPELL/FACT CHECKING!
Incendiary would like to thank a certain Mrs Trellis of North Wales (and indeed a number of real readers as well) who kindly picked up on the following slight factual error.
Re: Damian Leslie's review of Thomas White's Yalla - a little point, Doha's not in Egypt, it's in Qatar, and Thomas was in Dahab, Egypt when he wrote this album.
Thank you all,