loved Witness’ first album. It caught me by surprise – their first singles were released at about the same time as Doves and Coldplay made tentative steps on their paths towards success, and the three bands got lumped together by the press in a melange of wistfully epic, tear-stained indierock, and Witness, in the context of singles, seemed to be the runt of the litter, their low-key melodies and chorus-shy songwriting defiantly uncatchy and unsuited to three-minute bursts. But when the debut album itself arrived in the summer of 1999, months ahead of either Doves or Coldplay (and with none of the fanfare), I found myself moved by it in a way that Doves and especially Coldplay could never achieve. Before The Calm was a hushed, understated record of lost hopes and failed efforts, a tense, low-key and deeply personal document of melancholy expressed through downbeat and loosely formed psychedelic country, like a withered and forlorn Verve crossed with (very) early REM, musing on how they reached the precipice of a breakdown. It’s a deeply affecting record.
But Under A Sun is a different matter altogether. Before The Calm, despite excellent critical reception, sold a paltry two thousand copies in the UK, while Coldplay’s modestly polite and unaffecting complaint-rock went platinum. Island, sensing Witness’ potential for crossover, encouraged the band to “write some choruses and maybe a couple of singles”. The result is extraordinary; Under A Sun sees Witness transformed into a sky-kissing, richly-produced rock band replete with hooks, choruses and soaring sentiment. Amazingly, the transformation doesn’t quite sound as forced as you may think.
The balance of Gerard Starkie’s voice and Ray Chan’s guitar are key to Witness. On the debut album, Starkie’s voice was delicate and pained, a larynx of torn silk and blunt spliffs, pleading and wistful in utterance of deeply personal lyrics (has there ever been a more naked statement than “into the womb / crawl into the womb again / and don’t look behind you...” from “Second Life”, the debut album’s opener?), while Chan’s slide guitar alternately snaked delicate, mellifluous lines around Starkie’s songs, or else added crushing, overdriven and near-psychedelic noise-as-catharsis. On Under A Sun, the approach is much more straightforward, but no less effective; Starkie sings powerfully and compellingly, his voice rich with character and experience, the melodies no longer crushed, the arrangements no longer forlorn, and Chan’s extraordinary guitar spirals and loops over and around everything.
“Here’s One For You” starts slowly and quietly, and there is no reason to expect too much of a change from before. As before, the lyrics are deeply personal and downbeat to begin with (“I haven’t any money to purchase one / but I need a home”). But after a few bars the similarities end; vocals more strident, guitars layered and direct but still intricate, and the rhythm section now muscular and taut where once it was delicate and slow.
This is punchy, anthemic country-tinged rock of the highest order, and yet it is still deeply personal and honest. The symbiosis is quite an achievement. If you didn’t know better, you could easily think that Witness were from the West Coast, with their newly-discovered harmonies and rich Byrdsian chime. “Dividing Line” has the aura of a genuine country stomp, “My Boat” sweeps inexorably into inspirational, epic territory, “Closing Up” has the feel of after-hours resignation. There are echoes of Summerteeth era Wilco here, as well as Uncle Tupelo, early REM and, in the sonic maximalism, Urban Hymns era Verve without the ennui. That Witness have beefed up their sound and picked up their mood so much since their first album is remarkable. A triumph.