Of all the Britpop giant Blur members, drummer Dave Rowntree seemed the least likely to have a solo career. Singer Damon Albarn was the undisputed frontman of the group, but he let guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James take the mic from time to time. Rowntree’s vocal contributions to Blur were always in the background, playing second fiddle to Albarn’s front-and-center exuberance. When Blur went on hiatus, Albarn and Coxon busied themselves with outside musical projects. Meanwhile, Rowntree threw himself into a variety of non-musical ventures, like doing public relations work for the Beagle 2 mission to Mars and running for office as a candidate for the Labour Party.
Then, lo and behold, the drummer started to create incidental music for the soundtracks to After the Screaming Stops and The Capture. At last, we get to hear Rowntree’s voice front and center in his solo debut, Radio Songs. The album’s arrival is a small surprise, one that will likely get overshadowed by news of Blur’s 2023 reunion shows. But knowing Rowntree’s relaxed attitude towards fame, working in Albarn or Coxon’s shadow shouldn’t bother him.
Speaking of Albarn and Coxon, the sound of Rowntree’s singing voice is not far removed from his bandmates, albeit muted and mid-range. Although he can sing and play the guitar, Rowntree still teamed up with Gary Go and Högni Egilsson to co-write the songs and let Leo Abrahams steer the production, helping Radio Songs achieve a fully-realized sound rather than serve as an excuse to satisfy a drummer’s curiosity. The inspiration for the album’s title and its pliable format is Rowntree’s early relationship with radio. As a child in the 1970s, he would build radio kits with his father and spend his time just turning the dial, listening for what came next. Radio Songs is meant to mimic this act, with each track representing a different station. While the record isn’t quite as varied as switching from country to rock to classical to jazz, enough traits are buried in each song to make it interesting.
Rowntree’s brand of songs is “hushed”. Even at its comparatively loudest or most uptempo, Radio Songs is a subtle affair, the soundtrack to a solitary night where even the stations being picked up by the radio sound distant and lonely. “Devil’s Island” gets the album rolling gloomily by twirling a delicately-arranged minor key waltz around Rowntree’s not-so-rose-tinted memories of the United Kingdom in the 1970s when, according to him, “the country was deeply divided, and racism and misogyny were the norm. The economy was a basket case, and at one point, we had to be bailed out by the IMF.” That second sentence can be distilled into the chorus of “Roar like lions / Cry like lambs.” Even if Rowntree had left the track instrumental, you can tell that it’s not exactly pining for the good old days.
“London Bridge” was the other single released ahead of Radio Songs, a rather catchy bit of warm pop that throws an insistent chorus at you, chanting “La, la, la, la London Bridge / Far, far, far, far from the edge.” The arrangements concocted by Rowntree, Go, Egilsson, and Abrahams are just a little too cloudy to be mistaken for anything resembling mainstream pop while not being dark enough to be considered murky or depressing. The entirety of the album straddles this gray area from the first track to the last, and the hooks that snag you on “London Bridge” are no exception.
Elsewhere Rowntree tackles the subjects of long-distance relationships (“1000 Miles”), being stuck between the proverbial rock and a molten-rock place (“Volcano”), and anxiety (“Tape Measure”). He also creates instrumental passages by splicing together breathy utterances over a clattering drum beat (“HK”) and letting the sun gently set on the album with a soothing conclusion (“Who’s Asking”). Radio Songs is only as diverse as Rowntree’s musical identity allows him to be, which brings his dial-turning concept partially to life. This doesn’t bring him bursting to the front like Graham Coxon’s solo career did when it seemingly hit the ground running in the late 1990s. No, Radio Songs is the anti-All Things Must Pass, a soft reminder that, hey, the drummer can write and sing too.