General wisdom suggests that going into business with family is a major personal foul, but when your business is music, working with loved ones is a bonus. They know and understand your feelings better than anyone else, a dynamic in full swing on The Soft Cavalry’s self-titled debut album, a project orchestrated by Steve Clarke, husband of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, his collaborator-cum-guiding star.
The Soft Cavalry is Clarke’s first time helming a record himself, the culmination of a career spent playing in and featuring on other people’s bands since the late 1990s. On first impression, that makes The Soft Cavalry a personal effort, a statement piece about who Clarke is as an artist. Couched in that lofty intention, Goswell’s involvement is a double-edged sword. It can’t hurt having Goswell’s veterancy at his back. But name recognition has a way of overshadowing the people it’s meant to highlight, whether in the studio or in the ear of the beholder. Goswell’s influence might dominate the album; less circumspect listeners who tune into The Soft Cavalry without full context might assume the record is Goswell’s latest side venture, a la Mojave 3 or Minor Victories.
Luckily, the former doesn’t happen, though the latter remains the responsibility of the audience. Whatever part Goswell played recording in the studio, she performs the role of supporting player on the finished product, joining on vocals, occasionally taking lead on tracks like “Passerby” and using her talents as a singer to compliment Clarke’s. The Soft Cavalry is fully his, an introduction to and retrospective of his recent life and times. Clarke is married to Goswell, but the album is divorced from both Slowdive and Mojave 3’s respective styles, an airy dream pop middle ground separating shoegaze from country rock.
There’s a pleasing weightlessness wending its way through The Soft Cavalry’s 12 tracks, alternately augmented and offset by Clarke’s lyrics, ranging from tender to grim to destructive. On paper, that reads as confusing; on the record, that stew of emotional expression coheres nicely, each ingredient blending with the others in Clarke’s dream pop base. In overarching terms, The Soft Cavalry’s atmosphere is melancholic, maybe unavoidably so given the time it’s taken Clarke to get to the point of realizing the album: in a recent interview, he opines that he “never felt that anything I had to say was worthy of anyone’s attention, let alone my own,” which is about as unsparingly brutal as self-examination generally gets. No such self-deprecation manifests in the record, but there’s often a bereft timbre to its sound, a possible residual sentiment from years spent accepting his self-described unworthiness.
Granted, The Soft Cavalry would likely be a different album without those awful feelings—they’ve apparently made him resilient. Consider “Spiders,” the record’s eighth track, layered with a creeping dread that’ll set hairs standing on end for arachnophobes. “Leave our webs / begin again / like spiders,” Clarke practically whispers on the chorus, Goswell’s hushed voice joining his in describing an endless cycle of rebuilding on repeat. As the song draws to a close over booming drums, the image recurs, and as unsettling as it is, it’s easy to connect the dots and read the motif as representation of Clarke toiling in the music industry. Maybe The Soft Cavalry is his web, the goal he’s been building to all this time. That aspirational element, admittedly, clangs with “Spiders’” sinister vibe, but there’s no doubting the metaphor’s efficacy.
It’s more likely that Clarke’s web is actually Goswell, the subject who appears to most occupy his thoughts. The couple met in 2014 and married in 2018. Given the tone of his interviews, their union in matrimony and on The Soft Cavalry feels like a fresh start for him. His gratefulness is captured in full on “Never Be Without You”: “So I’ll say this now while I remember,” he sings near the song’s end, “before the years fade into one / I know that I’ve been loved by you.” Who else could he be singing about than Goswell? It can’t be accidental that “Never Be Without You” is the record’s most buoyant song, a breezy, sweet-hearted number to balance out sadness found elsewhere: The mournful lullaby “The Light That Shines On Everyone,” the echoing “Mountains,” the hauntingly wistful “Passerby.”
By the time The Soft Cavalry concludes, Clarke has achieved his mission: You know who he is. You know his story. It’s a scattershot narrative, but almost by necessity. Life stories aren’t linear. Clarke’s goes from his past to his present, allowing him to work out his sense of value and, perhaps, to say “thank you” to Goswell, whose presence is felt on the album without suffusing it. She’s just one of Clarke’s inspirations. The rest are all his own.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.