Paul Thomas Saunders is a young, Leeds-based singer/ songwriter who until now fit that mold comfortably. His three previous EPs were largely introspective guitar and vocal affairs. He's gifted with a clear, high voice and a falsetto to die for, but that's the icing on Beautiful Desolation. For his Atlantic debut, Saunders has built an enormous sonic palace. It's full of soaring synths, grand pianos, big drums, thrumming basses, wafting electric guitars, organs, and massively layered effects. It's simultaneously cinematic and melodic. One can hear traces of the late '80s in his production, but it's not nostalgic. Beautiful Desolation is dream pop in the best sense of the term; it seduces and startles the listener between its carefully, magnificently architected soundworld and its nakedly emotional narratives with nary a trace of mope. He's re-recorded four of his best songs here -- "Appointment in Samarra," "Wreckheads and the Female Form," "A Lunar Veteran's Guide to Re-Entry," and "Santa Muerte's Lightning & Flare," (all to the better) and added six new ones. Saunders' gorgeous singing and melodies contrast sharply with his deeply poetic, often darkly tinged lyrics. "Kawai Celeste" commences with a pulsing synth, distant yet spiraling guitars, tambourines, enormous tom-toms, an enormous organ (this and its preset inspired the track's title), and multi-tracked choral vocals. It soars musically, but is tempered by images of love and death, an unborn child, and angels. The single "Good Women," and later, "Appointment in Samarra," are drenched in lyric presentations of violence both physical and emotional, their drama supplanted by tentacles of warm, enveloping sound coming from every direction, drawing the listener inside even as their stories project in opposite directions. The arrangement in "In High Heels Burn It Down" stacks slowly unfurling synths, the howling wind, textured ambience, and simulated Theremin before it becomes a good-humored, fist-pumping rock anthem with a rolling bassline, regal church organ, fat guitars, and crisp, cut-time snare. The lushly romantic "Starless State of the Moonless Barrow" is driven by reverbed drums, acoustic guitars, and Wurlitzer piano. Closer "On Into the Night" is initially subtly psychedelic with reverbed vocals and trippy guitars, but builds itself out almost immediately; gradually it intensifies into an expansive, pillowy, wonderfully erected hymn of amorous yearning. Saunders distinguishes himself on Beautiful Desolation, not only with a massive production overhaul, but by writing songs so artful and eloquent that they deserve this grand canvas in order to illustrate them properly.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek