Contrary to what the breezy, upbeat nature of his music might suggest, Richard Swift plays a dangerous game: as a more-or-less self-contained one man band, he constantly risks falling victim to the sterility and unintentional chilliness of bedroom-bred pop, while his knack for writing catchy tunes that go down nice and easy threatens to devolve into pleasant superficiality. These dual pitfalls hover over The Atlantic Ocean, and more often than not, prevent the album from being the blissful DIY pop masterpiece it so clearly aspires to be.
The Atlantic Ocean’s shortcomings are not, however, immediately apparent, and it’s easy to be dazzled by Swift’s obvious talents. Things start off strong with the perfectly-calibrated title track, a simple piano tune packed full of burbling synths and layer after layer of background vocals. It’s the album’s most successful track, and not coincidentally, the most baroque in terms of arrangement and production, even if the excellent Mark Ronson-produced “Ballad of Old What’s His Name,” offers a more fleshed-out full-band feel. The remainder of the album, unfortunately, falls short of delivering the same buzz. While the relatively sparse feel of most tracks feels like an intentional effort towards evoking a vintage sound, Swift’s songs aren’t interesting enough to stay afloat on the back of a few well-placed synths or horns. The warmth and energy that makes or breaks this kind of pop is conspicuously lacking. Much of the problem probably lies in Swift’s unadorned and flaccid drumming, which initially stands out for its compressed, clear sound but quickly becomes an irritating liability. Even when every ingredient for the perfect pop song seems to be in place (as on the hook-filled “Hallelujah, Goodnight!” or the spot-on Nilsson homage “Bat Coma Motown”), Swift can’t quite close the deal: as carefully-considered as his arrangements clearly are, they come off like demos for the late-sixties/early-seventies hit singles they mimic, and would clearly benefit from some hot-shot studio musicians and a seasoned producer. The same goes for his efforts to add emotional weight to his music; the break-up ballads “Already Gone” and “The End of An Age” feel more like gratuitous grasps at gravity than deeply-felt expressions of sadness and regret.
Swift has clearly studied his masters (Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren) well, and does an impressive job of synthesizing their strengths. The end result, however, too often feels clinical and detached, at once over-calculated (in its painstaking efforts to hit all the right notes), yet not calculated enough (in its failure to deliver the necessary energy and production acumen). The Atlantic Ocean is impressive, at times even masterful, yet falters in reminding us more of what it lacks than of what it possesses.