In an age where the stigma surrounding mental health is slowly fading and being replaced with knowledge and understanding, it is important for people to share their experiences in open and honest mediums. Bill Ryder-Jones is one such artist who is not afraid to jump in and explore these issues through the powerful method of music. November 2018 saw the release of his fourth solo LP Yawn which was met with critical praise by many. The 10-song record was a homage to loss, family and love through a mixture of intimate ballads and contemplative guitar numbers. Less than eight months later, Ryder-Jones has re-recorded and re-released a stripped-back version of the same album. Taken back to the bare bones of piano and vocals for the most part, the new look record is even more heartfelt and sensitive, revealing Ryder-Jones at his intimate best.
Without the support of other instruments, Yawny Yawn demonstrates the open and honest nature of these songs and confirms the absolute beauty that was hidden amongst the instrumentation of Yawn. What Yawn achieved through full and layered arrangements, Yawny Yawn achieves through brutal unrelenting honesty and luscious songwriting. Ryder-Jones’ vocals are the perfect counterpoint to the soft touch of the piano, complimenting each other in a delicate and graceful manner. The double package of both albums is the best of both worlds for fans of Ryder-Jones, allowing listeners to enjoy the work in two different ways, dependant on their mood. The contrast of the two LPs succinctly demonstrates the songwriting prowess of Ryder-Jones and his ability to manipulate his sound to produce an even deeper variety of emotions and moods. Yawny Yawn is Ryder-Jones’ equivalent of Radiohead’s Last Flowers (2007), The National’s Light Years (2019) and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ stunning masterpiece Into My Arms (1997). It is a testament to careful songwriting and purposeful energy, resulting in gorgeous simplicity.
For the purpose of exploring this record as its own entity and giving it the careful consideration it deserves, this is where the comparisons between Yawn and Yawny Yawn will cease.
Despite a lack of diversity in sound, due largely to the minimalist instrumentation, Yawny Yawn serves up ten tracks of sophisticated optimism coated in jaded melancholy that are so easy to get absorbed in. Album opener “There’s Something on Your Mind” provides a steady tempo that is hardly deviated from throughout the record. Centred around the fleeting nature of romance and taking advantage of chance encounters, this simple yet elegant number is a pointed commentary on modern relationships. Ryder-Jones’ use of irony and honest cynicism to portray his feelings is best summed up by the line “but there’s a fortune to be had, from telling people you’re sad.”
This feeling is carried throughout the entire record, utilising criticisms of various aspects of modern society to highlight personal struggles. Ryder-Jones captures these moments of clarity and self-loathing in a playful juxtaposition of dejected lyricism and delicate piano accompaniments. “Time Will Be the Only Saviour” is an excellent example of this jaded viewpoint, not shying away from mental health issues like body image; “The sunken eyes and pale white skin, you’ve everything you’ve ever wanted.”
Yawny Yawn demonstrates Ryder-Jones’ ability to turn from pessimist to sobering realist through devastated numbers like “Recover” and “Mither”. Both songs are regretful acknowledgements of inadequacy and heartache and a reminder of the soulfulness of Ryder-Jones’ intelligent songwriting. Delicate piano and a distant background guitar drone make “Mither” feel spacious, whilst still maintaining the intimate feel of the record.
“And Then There’s You” is possibly the most melodic song on the record, again featuring droning guitar and a more consistently moving vocal line. This song is a clear standout for its depth, gentle melody line and the powerful use of space that Ryder-Jones takes full advantage of. Feeling no obligation to maintain the upbeat nature of the original version, this song is beautiful in its simplicity and despite winding down at the 7:40 mark, it remains striking in its unhurried approach. This tactic is further employed in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, with a timeless rubato allowing each line to stretch freely and expressively. Ryder-Jones quotes the first two lines, and sports the same name as from the movie Grease (1978), before taking the song in his own original direction. This is another piece that utilises space and melody to an impressive degree.
This entire album is filled with emotions and sentiments, loving, regretful, sorrowful and hopeful. Each song cleverly explores these themes with stark and candid authenticity, revealing small and intimate parts of Ryder-Jones’ journey. “Don’t Be Scared, I Love You”, a heartfelt admission of remorse and longing for forgiveness, and “John”, a mournful letter to a lost friend filled with regret and yearning for better times, subtly capture these universal themes in a succinct and effective manner, inviting the listener in and providing a safe space.
Ryder-Jones rounds the album out with “No One’s Trying to Kill You”, which has a chorus a little too close to “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” (2012) by Cigarettes After Sex, and “Happy Song”, another example of sardonic lyricism – “For people who were happy once, well here’s another happy song.” The contrast of the sombre and expressive piano lends to the sarcastic nature of the message of this song; the irony of being asked to write a happy song for others when struggling internally with your own happiness. Showcasing another candid instance of Ryder-Jones’ commentary on mental health, i.e. the contradictory belief that fake happiness can inevitably lead to genuine happiness, this song highlights the absurd reality of that paradox.
Bill Ryder-Jones has taken his 2018 release, stripped back the distractions and drawn focus on the raw and reverent songwriting. In comparison to Yawn, Yawny Yawn makes more sense – every aspect of each song is given its due diligence. One potential downfall of Yawny Yawn lies within its most utilised elements, that of simplicity. Some listeners may find the scarcity of the record mundane and repetitive, which is a result of only having a handful of instruments. However, the purpose of this record is to capture the fundamentals of the music and showcase the vulnerability of the composer. Overall, Ryder-Jones has achieved what he set out to do, and in so doing, he has created a mature and poignant album that should resonate with a wide variety of listeners.