It's a tricky job, trying to pull off an electronic folk approach without it coming across as overly twee or naval gazing. More often than not, it feels unnecessary; going no further than aping the likes of Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell but built to be pumped over the speakers at Urban Outfitters. However, a select few find a way to make something exciting. Avant-garde without feeling try-hard.
Jens Lekman and Arthur Russell are two that have done just that; witty, unusual characters with sights set far beyond that of their peers. Twisting and moulding something inherently simple into something even richer, without losing the essence. Both never quite settled on one sound but found that combination of natural and mechanical so bewitching.
While Will Westerman isn't quite at their level yet, his debut album, 'Your Hero Is Not Dead', shows he's making great strides to reach it. His is a graceful sound. Simple confessional songs washed over with electronics and guitar melodies that are breezy but never hollow.
The synth that opens 'I Think I'll Stay' has such a satisfying crunch to it, sitting in wonderful contrast to the soaring synths and bouncing beats that clash later in the song. There's a carefree feel built up in this; an acceptance that, if this is the best it's going to get, we better just ride it out.
This search for hope among the hopeless plays a big part throughout. Even the album's title (repeated in the stunning opener 'Drawbridge' and later used to close out the album) attempts to capture the idea that whatever or whoever you believe in can never go away so long as you do believe in it. It sounds trite, but Westerman's earnestness and confidence sells it all. His voice is always quiet but full of energy, playing into the contradictions in sound he loves to mess with.
It's unsurprising that production comes from Bullion, who made his name with a Pet Sounds/J Dilla mash-up album. 'Float Over' feels very close to the fun experimentation of Brian Wilson and co. It begins as an ordinary acoustic ballad but, as more sounds come into play, Westerman and Bullion make an uneasy connection between the past and the future. The organs and ghostly harmonicas, even the harmonies, reveal themselves to be electronic after initially sounding organic. This playfulness doesn't come around often on 'Your Hero Is Not Dead', but it's where they're at their best.
Because, while Westerman has definitely found his own path with this record, there's a feeling that he can't rest on his laurels now. Two of the best tracks on the album, "Easy Money" and "Confirmation", the latter a lament on writer's block, have been around for a while now. In many ways, their minimal yet intricate structure has informed much of 'Your Hero Is Not Dead'. He's far from running out of ideas, but there is this niggling feeling that it would be an even stronger record if Westerman had taken greater leaps.
The likes of 'The Line', with a creativity that brings to mind Efterklang, and 'I Think I'll Stay', tracks that mix up the Westerman formula, succeed much more than 'Blue Comanche', which feels a bit like retreading old ground. For now, though, this formula has produced a refined record full of Gen Y ennui and works as a fantastic full-length introduction to a talent close to striking on something truly magical.