Eventually, every genre of music reaches saturation point. A hundred good albums could be released in the same genre in one year, and would all become seemingly average simply due to their proximity to one another. It really felt like indie-folk hit this milestone back in around 2011 or 2012, and has yet to recover from it. Between the all-consuming hype surrounding Bon Iver’s self-titled album, the apparent implosion of Fleet Foxes, and Mumford and Sons shifting into a full pop-group, it felt like indie-folk’s time in the spotlight had come to an end. Even the indie-folk king Bon Iver has moved onto glitchy electronica with his newest album, which has left the innumerable number of smaller acts from the genre feeling somewhat lost. Groups like Winterbourne play solid songs, but simply due to audiences tiring of the style, have failed to really break into the mainstream. As the newest in a long line of falsetto-gifted men crooning over guitars, does Dustin Tebbutt have what it takes to stand out?
Tebbutt’s 3 EP’s have all explored a very consistent mood, examining regret and loneliness over a wash of reverberating guitars and jittery electronics. What makes First Light different is its apparent focus on optimism, inspired by finding love, although one would be hard-pressed to notice that upon a first listen. Sonically, the album is extremely similar to its predecessors, and by extension, much of the indie-folk genre from the last 5 years. However, there are some subtle differences that make First Light stand out from his downtrodden EP’s. Where they were isolating and lonely, largely occupied by desolation, First Light explores something more akin to wide-eyed wonder. It’s an album of grandiose statements and big questions, and the starscape on its cover seems quite apt.
However, whilst Tebbutt’s intentions may be noble, he struggles to make his varying ideas coalesce on First Light. Firstly, the aforementioned “wonderment” can occasionally be hard to take, coming across as fairly corny more often than not. The very first line of the album is “I’m looking up to where these stars still shine for you”, which is Chris Martin-level portentous, and it’s hard not to cringe when one hears it. However, when he’s willing to go to darker places, his lyricism is much stronger. Couplets like “you said I need this / through the distance in your eyes” are actually quite affecting, conjuring up complex emotions through simple, intimate imagery.
However, the intimacy of the lyrics is sometimes undone by the sheer level of polish on the instrumentals. The album is undeniably pretty, but often to a fault. Wild Blood could be a strong song, but between the circular guitar figures, the glockenspiels, the “ooh-aah” harmonies, the shimmering drums, and the never ending, swirling echo, it becomes overwhelming to the point of cheesiness. There’s a fine line between pretty and saccharine, and Tebbutt just crams the song with so much extra stuff that it ends up crossing it.
There are exceptions to this, however. The single Give Me Tonight is easily the strongest track on the album, although it too suffers from feeling overly glossy. The looping “the one I want” vocal line is incredibly catchy, and the percussion melds effortlessly with the piano. Tebbutt uses his sweet falsetto to excellent effect, only bringing it out intermittently, but even then, the song is just caked in so much reverb that it’s hard to take seriously. There’s no cracks for the listener to let themselves in, no imperfection to relate to. There’s just the perfectly photographed, perfectly edited starscape from the album cover, and much like that image, First Light is extremely pretty, but just feels a little too glossy to be sincere.