“Dream Country” is the creative response to parting ways with a previous record company and being given complete creative freedom to make the record that Sarah Darling wanted. It therefore does not have to obey any rules about what it must sound like, and so sails across multiple genres; the one common thread being the excellence of the material chosen and the hypnotic clarity of the vocals.
The theme of stars runs throughout the album, right from the very opening track “Wandering Star”, mercifully not a Lee Marvin cover, but a trippy dance track that once heard finds a way to burrow into your brain to the point you cannot think of any other tune!
The album has a number of songs that are quite simply beautiful, the vast desert landscapes of Wyoming are brought to life in “Where Cowboys Ride” where the “prairie grass prays for rain” and “a million stars paint the sky”. There are some lovely backing vocals, and the instrumentation, the subtle strings and piano touches make this an absolute joy to listen to, with the vocals once again superb.
“Anchor” in contrast is as basic as it could be, initially just Sarah and an acoustic guitar. The instrumentation only swells to a simple piano as well as some additional backing vocals. The stars crop up again as “something to steer a course by”.
If “Anchor” was sheer delicate beauty then “Tell That Devil” shows that she is not afraid to rock out either. The grungy heavy guitar intro leads into a tune that lets Sarah show another side to her vocal range. Ripped from the TV series Nashville, the song should stand out like a sore thumb as there is nothing else like it on the record, however it just sits there demonstrating the variety of genres that Sarah can adapt to.
Always one to include in an excellent cover, she completely throws in a surprise by performing a Smiths song, in the shape of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”. The guitar slowed down from Johnny Marr’s original and the wounded vocal, if possible, sounds even more pained than Morrisey’s original. With once again, wonderful strings it sits perfectly amongst the rest of the album.
Back to things astronomical for “Starry Eyes”, possibly a memo to self as Sarah is known to sport a spectacularly starry make up when performing. Either way it is full of positive mantras “Stay wild at heart” and “Don’t lose sight even when you feel like falling apart”, votes of confidence for someone to keep on doing what they are doing and not to give in.
The next song, is a chance to fall in love with Paris. From the string intro to the wonderful lyrics where love is being made between “the sunrise and the city”. It’s a city that has had it troubles in recent times but this song accentuates the “magnificent beauty” of Paris, especially “Montmarte”. The sweeping strings half way through make this a mini masterpiece in its own right.
“Dream Country” is an album where superlatives come thick and fast, “Halley’s Comet”, built around another of those incessant hooks is another wonder. Filled with a little autobiographical details and a chorus to die for explaining that love of the stars. We see her initially standing with her father watching the comet that “won’t be back for years”. Later we see her stage debut, encouraged by the words that she was “born to sing”, she seizes the moment and “in the spotlight a star was made” taking the chance “to shine”.
The next song can only be described as “cheeky”, as Sarah becomes a jazzy chanteuse, with a song packed with enough double-entendres to fill a Two Ronnies sketch. The lazy nightclub vocals are joined halfway through by a trumpet solo that completely transports the listener to a 1930’s Speakeasy.
The album ends all too soon with the gentle guitar introduction to “Stargazer”, with its dreamy, echoing vocals, you can almost feel the album coming to a close, like sand falling through an hourglass or a music box slowly playing it last few notes. It seems like another memo to self with the line “No-one can keep you here but you”.
This is undoubtedly already a strong contender for the best record of 2017, not a second or a note wasted, it is so beautiful they should be making space for it in the Louvre!