Ash frontman Tim Wheeler produces a cathartic solo album following his father's battle with dementia
Since losing his father George to dementia in 2011, Ash frontman Tim Wheeler has been a prominent supporter of the Alzheimer's Society, notably organising a benefit gig at the Ulster Hall later that year, where the band performed their debut album, 1977, in full.
Three years on, his debut solo album is also raising money for the charity – 10% of money raised will be donated to the charity – but this time Wheeler is fully invested as a songwriter and performer, as the entire record documents his father's illness and passing, and Wheeler's efforts to come to terms with it.
By far the most striking thing about Lost Domain is the raw clarity of its lyrics. Wheeler has always had a heart-on-sleeve dimension to his songwriting – think of the Ash songs 'Lost In You', 'Shining Light' and 'Sometimes' – but Lost Domain trumps them all to a startling degree.
There is precious little in the way of allusion or metaphor, as the song titles themselves indicate, each as stark as the scenarios they depict: 'Vigil', 'Hospital', 'Medicine'.
Take a line from 'Hospital', for example, which is shocking in its clarity: 'I come to meet you every Tuesday after therapy / As you're re-learning how to breathe, and taking things slowly.' This is songwriting as diary-entry – a fearlessly descriptive approach that clearly helped Wheeler to process his emotions, but it can make for awkward, unsettling listening.
Meanwhile, the first single 'Vigil' documents his father's last days with the whole family: 'My mother, my sister and my two brothers / We can lean on and support each other.' Lyrics as unguarded as these are rare, and they may take some mental and emotional recalibration before they stop jarring (or perhaps I'm just an incorrigible cynic) but once they do, the warmth and beauty of the songs just blooms.
Wheeler lets us in and shows us the grief and heartache of watching a loved one die, and then he goes further and uses the experience as a springboard to focus on emotion, of hope over despair.
'Hospital' is really about the deep love between a father and son. 'Vigil' is about the intimacy of family. Wheeler's voice is as boyish and vulnerable as ever on both of these songs, which rather suits the subject matter, and his knack for sweeping pop choruses remains in full effect, making these tracks feel uplifting in spite of the dark subject matter.
These two songs constitute the heart of the album, and sandwiched between them is its centrepiece, 'Medicine', wherein Wheeler really extends himself and his songwriting – it is ten-minutes long, written from the point of view of his father rather than himself, and consists of one repeating melodic figure which remains constant as the mood of the song, and therefore the musical backing, morphs and shifts, taking in mundanity, frustration, love, fear, despair and ultimately hope.
It's an ambitious, experimental undertaking, and while the change in perspective is welcome, the empathy required to write those lyrics admirable and the storytelling vivid, ultimately the piece rather collapses under its own weight.
Just when you think that Lost Domain is going to be characterised by overbearing production and claustrophobia, though, the second half of the record opens up.
Either side of the gorgeous instrumental 'Vapour', 'First Sign Of Spring' and 'Hold' see Wheeler coming to terms with his loss to beautiful, spare ballads. The hospital, the medicine and the bedside vigils are gone; now it's about a man alone with his thoughts, and Wheeler captures this phase of the grieving process beautifully.
Then, slightly incongruously in truth, there is a mini love story. On the bright, propulsive title track, the clouds part and Wheeler learns to face the world again with a new love: 'I'm coming back to life,' he exclaims, with something approaching joy in his voice.
It is infectious but the joy is short-lived, as reality sets in on the final track 'Monsoon' and Wheeler accepts that 'I need time to work this pain out on my own'. And thus a turbulent and detailed narrative arc comes to a close with Wheeler facing the future without his father, alone and with a host of emotions to deal with in his own time and in his own way.
Lost Domain clearly represents a major part of that process, and it is highly likely that the process of writing and recording it was its own reward – how it is received is surely irrelevant to Wheeler. It is a flawed album, but it is also full of genuine, raw, human emotion and courage, not to mention several moments of heart-swelling wonder. George would be proud.