Hymns, the second album by Richard Davies and Eric Matthews’ chamber-pop concept duo Cardinal, was always going to suffer the slings and arrows of a pop-critical furnace that was mostly soiling its nappies when the band’s first, self-titled album was released back in 1994. There were, of course, several contexts for Cardinal’s quiet impact, back in the day: one of the first shots against the grunge hegemony; an Australian unmoored in America, both reflecting on his birthplace and glancing forward to his adopted home; and more prosaically, a set of glorious songs that were calling for a ’60s flourish. But expecting Cardinal to pick up the precise thread they stopped weaving back in 1994 is kind of like asking artists to go into regression therapy, largely for the benefit of an unthinking critical audience.
So, while Hymns shares some of its predecessor’s interests — brass and string arrangements, instrumental flourishes, close harmony singing, lyrical obfuscation — it’s comparatively direct. Davies has dropped some of the lyrical play, though there’s still plenty to wonder about: what are the “secret in-jokes for Ronald Jones,” the one-time Flaming Lips guitarist who worked with Davies on his 1997 solo album, Telegraph, that he mentions in “Radio Birdman”? And is he really still working through the way Australia looms large in his psyche? Certainly, a song title like “Radio Birdman,” the lyrical quote from Cold Chisel’s “Cheap Wine” in “General Hospital,” and mention of Sydney suburb Cabramatta in “Rosemary Livingstone” all suggest he’s looking back at the country through a prismatic lens.
But more than ever, Davies is writing with energy and force — both “Love Like Rain” and “Carbolic Smoke Ball” rock with the kind of force he’s not corralled since the early days of The Moles; “Northern Soul” is one of his most glorious slices of psychedelic pop yet; “Kal” is broad-armed, rich and effortlessly melodic, built of the same Pacific calm as the best songs on Davies’s last solo record, 2000’s underrated Barbarians. Indeed, much of Hymns feels like an extension of Davies’s late ’90s / early ’00s solo form, writing songs that felt closer to abstract parable or great American short stories, with narrative twists that caught you looking. In that sense, the focus on Hymns has shifted slightly from the first Cardinal record, to the point where Davies’s allusive lyrics are every bit as poignant as the arrangements are gorgeous.
If I’ve not mentioned Matthews too much, it’s because these songs, more than before, feel driven by Davies’s lyric writing and melodic directness. But listen carefully and you’ll hear just how important Matthews is to the structure of the album and the insidious strength of the melodies — certainly, “Kal” would be the lesser without the sweep of his brass and string arrangements. His breathy, weightless voice sits well with Davies’s more colloquial drawl, and the song where he takes the lead, “Her,” is Hymns at its most open and unassuming.
It’s not a perfect record: the over-long, over-frail piano ballad “General Hospital” sits awkwardly on the album, an indulgence where everything else feels perfectly measured. It’s a rare mis-step on a collection of songs that’s beautifully judged, possessed of an idiosyncratic melodic logic that few can equal. It’s about time they were back, if only to show us how it’s really done.