Album Review: Charlie Cunningham – 'Permanent Way'

The classically trained London singer-songwriter delivers a documentation of life’s uncertainties on his glowing sophomore record.

The burgeoning mass of British singer-songwriters that have emerged in recent years has slowly moulded into a quagmire of similarity and simplicity, taking away some of the joy from acoustic guitar-based music due to its increasing predictability. However, when London-based Charlie Cunningham released his hugely successful debut album Lines in 2017, a spark of rejuvenation was lifted into the genre.

An innovative singer-songwriter trying to transition an ancient music form into the modern realm, Cunningham propelled himself onto the minds of many fatigued individuals in desperate need for something soothing with his classical guitar-based tracks and melodic vocals. On his sophomore record, Cunningham tackles the need for intimacy and love alongside a desperate desire for space and independence.

Opening single and title track Permanent Way coalesces the ambience of the natural world with a sense of serenity and placidity which washes a delightful soundscape over the listener from the very beginning of the record. Whilst Cunningham caresses the track with intricate arpeggios, his veritable vocals narrate the journey of two individuals struggling to find a sense of place with both the world and one another. The soothing guitar arrangement of Don’t Go Far sets the track’s foundations as a careful and concise piece based around intricate strumming and rhythmic orientations. The dominant opening riff is propelled with elegant licks from the nylon-strung guitar, whilst the vocals are rich with loss, longing and desire. For a track that glistens with style and panache, Cunningham’s vocal offering carries the emotional fatigue of a man who has already experienced his fair share of living.

Whilst the sweeping whirlwind of atmospheric keys on Sink In combines with the singer-songwriter’s vocals and staple guitar sound, the briefest of interludes from the electric guitar sparks a much-needed excitement to match the single’s deft yet beguiling lyrics. Force of Habit offers something slightly disparate in its winding nature which follows a steady tide of progression. With such a prolonged offering, Cunningham is able to recite the track in a way that feels ever-so-natural. The singer-songwriter seems perfectly content to sit back and let the music ebb and flow until the path slowly builds to an emphatic climax that dutifully concludes the single.

The melodic sway of album closer Stuck brings the record to a well-rounded conclusion with its enchanting strings and piano combination fading out until total silence, whereas Bite is a track lifted by Cunningham’s ever-evolving guitar pattern, which jangles with a majestic sweep of his strumming hand. Not too dissimilar to debut record Lines, Permanent Way acts as a token of appreciation for the primordial discipline of the classical guitar, with Cunningham’s years of training and dedication paying off, recently bolstered by a journey to Spain which cemented his championing of his chosen instrument. Headlights shines above most of the record due to the complexity and originality of its guitar arrangement. The track’s omnipresent pulsating guitar rhythm acts as the heartbeat to the single, allowing Cunningham the space to develop his network of guitar patterns. More importantly, the mellowed thump of the guitar beat allows the singer-songwriter’s vocals to come to the forefront of the music, his melodic capabilities reaching unprecedented heights as they dance freely around the soundscape.

The calming lull of Monster descends into an emotive chasm of hushed instrumentation, characterised by the most delicate of finger-picking from the London-based artist, with the combination of string orchestration, piano and guitar making for an innately beautiful finale. Whilst Cunningham’s technical prowess is best observed when his tracks develop with time, his skill as a musician is still apparent in the shortest of offerings. The shrift passage of instrumental guitar on Interlude (Tango) acts to further Cunningham’s status as one of the most talented classically-trained musicians in contemporary music right now.

Yet despite Permanent Way’s partial reliance on its creator’s musical mastery, there is a newfound richness of texture and colour that was hidden on Cunningham’s debut record. The unpredictable Different Spaces takes more of a traditional pop arrangement with the surprise twist of contrasting piano and guitar lines. Its shuffling drum beat adds a sense of continuity on a track that keeps its listeners on the edge of their seat, whilst soothing trumpet tones embed another layer of richness into the single. Piano-based pop ballad Maybe We Won’t adds a slightly different dimension to the record in format, but aside from the inclusion of synth elements and the rising crescendo of instrumentation towards the ending, the track feels a little safe and fails to really add further depth to a record already permeated with glowing songwriting ideas.

Perhaps the biggest reward reaped on an album bristling with ideas comes from Hundred Times, which transforms the singer-songwriter into a persona previously unseen or unheard before. Stripped back in its entirety, the single sees its narrator as a tormented soul, vulnerable and shut away from the world. His whiskey-flavoured, cigar-stained nights descend into perpetual darkness as a dark, underlying piano line merges with a jazz-oriented percussion shuffle. Even the moody and passionate guitar interlude towards the track’s ending screams with eternal anguish, a feeling that many previously felt Cunningham was unable of conjuring. What was quite possibly a big risk when drafting the album has in fact turned out to be one of the standout moments of the artist’s blossoming career, and it now raises the eyebrows upon the realisation that there may be more unexpected surprises to come.

A mixture of comfort-zone classical guitar and risky second-album gambles, Permanent Way is a fascinating narration of personal quips alongside more general statements surrounding humankind’s interpersonal interactions. As expected, Cunningham highlights the flexibility and durability that the classical guitar possesses, using the instrument to provide fluctuating yet lavish melodies shoulder to shoulder with a more structured percussive arrangement. His twirling fingers spin an intricate web of intrigue across the entirety of the sophomore record, an album which matches technical prowess and expressional singles with a soothing, melodic core. Cunningham’s use of pause and refrain within his tracks has made him an enticing prospect over the last few years, and the arrival of his latest body of work highlights an artist ready to step out of his own shadow.

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