When a debut album launch gig ends with the audience chanting the band’s name and demanding two encores, you know you’ve found a rare gem. Distinctly Mancunian alt-rock-meets-folk band The Northern Rambler consists of singer-songwriter and acoustic guitarist Liam Callacher, lead guitarist Michael Webster, bassist Yousaf Mahmood and drummer Sara Wolstenholme Crompton. Their first LP offering, ‘Dare Not Speak’, is, for all the sources it takes inspiration from, a true original.
If ‘Dare Not Speak’ is one thing, it is achingly, unashamedly human. Taking its name from Two Loves, a poem by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas which was used against Wilde in the court hearing which culminated in his imprisonment, it is a tribute to the highs and lows of existence. Liam has a masterly but unpretentious command of language, his greatest lyrical accomplishments on this album being those which condense matters of unspeakable complexity into lyrics which summarise them perfectly with incredible simplicity and brevity.
The song which showcases this perhaps the most beautifully is ‘God Bless’, a paean to Northern kindness, bravery and spirit in the face of terror. It is intelligent but never esoteric, emotionally raw without ever becoming gratuitous. Originally written and released on Facebook by Liam without the rest of the group, the album version is even more breathtaking – the entire band’s love for Manchester and its people is palpable. If you’re searching for a lesson in how to write about tragedy, this is it.
This sensitivity towards difficult subject matters runs through the album right from the offset with a frank and honest discussion of love and sickness set to a stunning guitar arrangement in ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, which flows smoothly into the following track. ‘The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name’ is written from the perspective of Wilde during his imprisonment, reflecting on his relationship with Bosie. Despite its specificity, the lyrics are amazingly universal. The collision of love and mourning with bitterness and resentment in lines like “I nursed you back to health, and you sent me the bill” and “you’ll smear my name through the dirt, I’m sure, but first meet me in Naples, I can’t resist your allure” will no doubt resonate with many listeners. That said, the song also remains explicitly about the cruelly oppressive laws that Wilde and many others like him faced for their sexuality in the not-so-distant past, and is deeply moving for it.
While the first two songs are more guitar-led, ‘I Know A Man’, the B-side from The Northern Rambler’s debut single, beautifully showcases Yousaf and Sara’s talent as the rhythm section takes centre stage in arguably one of the strongest songs on the album. With a literary narrative and characterisation, it’s a novel in under three minutes. The A-side, ‘Coming Home’, is equally gorgeous. It is preceded by ‘Possible’, a tonic for anyone whose dreams feel out of reach, topped off with dazzling guitarwork. With a rare earnestness that’s hard to find in contemporary music, when Liam tells you that “you’re gonna do things you never knew,” you believe him. That being so, you’d expect some of the lyrics to ‘Coming Home’, like “when I was younger I dreamed I could be a thousand things that I will never be, so I packed those dreams into a suitcase, and now those dreams are gonna die with me,” to feel out of place, but in combination with a sentimentally reminiscent and doggedly determined atmosphere, they really don’t. Like many of the tracks on the album, it is a song about both change and resilience which leaves you feeling genuinely optimistic.
The album ends with covers of ‘Coming Home’ and ‘God Bless’ by Jody Jody and Joe Thomas, but before it draws to a close, The Northern Rambler leave you with a lovely final offering, ‘Love Ourselves’. You wouldn’t expect a writer who takes inspiration from Oscar Wilde and terror attacks to not only also draw from RuPaul’s Drag Race and Star Wars but also to do so with equally accomplished lyricism, but Liam’s ability to surprise is just another testimony to The Northern Rambler’s refreshing originality.
Produced by the band’s own Michael Webster, ‘Dare Not Speak’ is amazingly polished without ever losing its humanity. With both its captivating contemporaneity and timeless sound, this is an album that, if it achieves the recognition it beyond deserves (and given its reception at the band’s debut gig, it no doubt will), will be gracing radio stations, record players and Spotify playlists for many years to come.
Wilde wrote a letter to Bosie while imprisoned, which he entitled De Profundis, meaning ‘from the depths’. There’s really no better way to summarise this incredible debut LP.
‘Dare Not Speak’ is out now via Bread Records on iTunes and Spotify.