It's hard to resist Shawn William Clarke's charms. His 2014 record, William, was a warm, impressionist mural that hypnotized critics and slow-dancers alike, and now, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter returns with TOPAZ. It boasts an updated sound — think ambient folk meets abstract expressionism — but has the same entrancingly lovely songwriting and feel.
TOPAZ is gorgeous, lush and intimate, from the two-minute guitar-woodwind opener "Back to Breath" to "Gros Morne," the dreamy closer. A handful of tracks in this otherwise graceful alliance of songs deserve special attention, though: "Autumn in New Brunswick," with Olenka Krakus (Olenka and the Autumn Lovers), is a lovely hymn to travel; "Young in Love (At the End of the World)," with Abigail Lapell; and "You're Lonely, Too," with Merival on vocals and Christine Bougie on guitar (Bahamas, the Good Lovelies, Jason Collett). They're lyrical sketches of everyday life, love and loneliness. Krakus, Lapell and Merival all return for the intensely personal tracks "Mouse Not the Man" and "Anxiety."
A recurring theme on TOPAZ is exploring unchartered emotional, geographical and sonic territory. Musically, though, it's all about collaboration, and the phenomenal women here who elevate and illuminate the music. The vocal matchups alone are irresistible. Clarke's electric guitar is a welcome addition, as are film composer Alexis Marsh's woodwind arrangements throughout the record — not to mention her scene-stealing performance on "Anxiety."
Clarke is a master of nuance, simplified use of instrumentation and luminosity through storytelling. TOPAZ is one of the most likeable sets of songs you'll hear all year. (Independent)