The early albums for any artists are notoriously tricky. That first album can get you noticed and garner you a little bit of attention and a following. Then comes the difficult second album, and presuming you come out of that relatively unscathed, you have to tackle the third one. Stay in your comfort zone and you risk criticism over being too safe and samey. Try something too different, and you risk alienating those who fell for your sound in the first place. Given you could class 2016's Ends and Starts as an extended EP, this could be seen as either Lane's second or third album, which makes even more difficult. It's all a bit a tightrope walk.
Fortunately, it's a tightrope that Robert Lane walks effortlessly, throwing in some somersaults for good measure. Both the eponymous debut and the extended EP are strong releases (I loved both of them), but Only A Flight Away is an astonishing step up in quality. When Right By My Side was released as a single last year, it demonstrated a maturity both lyrically and musically, and it's nice to see it on the album. What is even nicer to see is that every other song on the album is on the same level, if not better.
Picking songs from the record to highlight is ridiculously hard. Baby Knows begins with a bluesy guitar riff that builds wonderfully, and you can't help but nod your head and tap your feet when the drum kicks in. Take As Long As You Need is heartbreakingly touching, the story of a loved one going through loss and grief, and feeling like there's nothing you can say to help, and nothing you can do except for just being there for them. Bill Frost's Flying Machine, which gives the album its title, is a gentle melodic track which focuses on Lane's vocal talents. It reaches for the sky and achieves it, soaring majestically in places.
The high point of the album comes in the second half, with the outrageously fun Hoping For Anything (But You). It's a track I've returned to again and again, and it never fails to put a huge grin on my face. This is Robert Lane as you've never heard him before, all pounding drums and rock heavy vocals, and demands to be sung along to at the top of your voice. The record ends on a more familiar acoustic sound, with the superb Who Do You Think You're Talking For. There have been some great political-tinged songs over the last year or so, and this is up there with the best of them.
To call Only A Flight Away an unexpected pleasure is a bit of an understatement. There's enough of a connection here to the first two releases so you know it's a Robert Lane album, but the musical evolution on display is staggering. Not only has his songwriting matured, but he's married it to a wonderfully produced and layered sound. All this makes for an outstanding release that may just be one of the first essential albums of 2018.
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