I first heard the music of Tom Rosenthal in Sam Esmail’s 2014 movie Comet [i]. The song was Rosenthal’s “It’s OK” from his 2013 album B-Sides. I paused the movie to find out who the artist was and how I didn’t already know him—the memory of that melody stayed with me for days. How deftly his music oscillates between hope and alienation, performing like a music box dancer who moves like it might break free of a destiny confined to those same twists and turns for all of eternity—but, alas. I quickly listened to 2011’s Keep a Quiet Room Behind the Shop and 2013’s B-Sides and found that this brazen sentiment wasn’t unique to just this one song but Rosenthal’s whole anthology of work.
The sounds of Rosenthal could certainly draw comparisons to other singer-songwriters—the classic sensibility of Paul Simon, or perhaps the more modern and also London-based Keaton Henson—but the whole of his work stands out as his own. It's startling elegiac, inventive, modern and even bucolic. Rosenthal’s low and gruff voice sings against the sounds of soft guitar, but it’s the dampened piano notes that carry the rawness of his vocals along; and the whimsy he introduces with whistling melodies, violin, voice recordings and the ukulele even further engage the listener’s imagination. The body is an instrument more than anything else, and Rosenthal uses every playful opportunity to create sounds that match the ineffable, mysterious nature of humanity that he sings about.
Lyrically, the songs have the power to knot you up a bit. As vulnerable as the lyrics are—themes of loss, confusion, nostalgia, and mortality —the sounds take you on a journey that is often diametrically opposed to the lyrical impetus of the song. In “Non-Verbal Communication,” the ukulele strums along to a bright and upbeat drum tempo, people clap in the background and Rosenthal sings, “where do we all go my love?” It doesn’t get more existentially confounding than that. And the themes only get more relevant and inky in songs like “YOLO,”[ii] “Watching You Watch YouTube in the Dark” and “Don’t You Know How Busy and Important I Am?”
It's songwriting that’s honest, unfiltered and essentially strange. At times it reminds me of the storytelling voyages that Mark Kozelek (Sun Kill Moon) takes us on—where the banal meets the sensational with the clever pen of a candid storyteller. See songs like: “Toby Carr’s Difficult Relationship with Tuna,” the epic storytelling in“The Boy,” the peculiar zeal and animation of “Lonely Pigeon,” the frolicsome “Watermelon,” and all the intensity bundled inside “There is a Dark Place.”
Rosenthal’s latest release, The Pleasant Trees (Volume 2)[iii], was released at the end of 2015. With just six songs, the album is softly melancholy, affectionately hopeful and could easily compose the whole soundtrack of a well-made romantic comedy. Seemingly an ode to a life yet lived—both for his young daughter and for those who could learn to begin again. But don't skip over Rosenthal’s more experimental songwriting. He’s one I’ve got my eye on as he makes his way, asks questions, and takes soaring risks that won't be popular with the mainstream. To borrow from the artist himself, “we’re all babies making stories, stories.” Spending a few hours with his music is a bit more like taking in an expressionist painting, meant to inspire the tumultuous evocation of moods, emotions and ideas. Perhaps there is not a sound for all the things we will find along our way, but this comes really close.
[i] A wonderfully messy movie with the talky, manic rhythm of MR. ROBOT and the heart of something like (500) Days of Summer. Not perfect, but certainly worth a viewing and currently streaming on Netflix.
[ii] Seriously, how is this song not in a commercial yet? Be sure to listen all the way until the end. YOLO was too much for me too, Tom.
[iii] He also released the excellent Bolu in 2015.
I’ve compiled a playlist of some of my favorite songs on Spotify, but be sure to cut into some deeper tracks for a full experience. You can also find Bolu, Who’s That in the Fog?, B-Sides and Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop on Bandcamp. There's also further material and really great covers on Soundcloud, including the saddest version of Bootylicious that you ever did hear.