Balancing poetic lyrics and musical invention, Bahraini pop artist Ala Ghawas shows off his songwriting skills
Bahraini musician Ala Ghawas got his start in making music while he was a Fulbright Scholar studying in Boston in 2007. He released several EPs which were successes in his native Bahrain, which then led to a live album in 2011. Riding this wave, he decided to take the time necessary to record what would become his first full-length album named Armor. Taking the best part of three years to make, Armor is an eclectic selection of genres and styles, reflective of Ghawas’s own musical background. Having previously covered songs by Leonard Cohen and Elliot Smith, lyrics are very important to Ghawas, just as much as the indie folk or chamber pop genre he likes to work in. As such, he teamed up with Bahraini band Likwid as well as employing the services of Bahraini composer Mohammed Haddad to help with the arrangement of live string sections for four of the songs. It is clear from this that Ghawas takes his music very seriously, and has sought the collaboration of artists who he thought would help him create the best music possible. This is what sets it apart from other debut albums. Ghawas already has a footing in the industry, as his EPs and live album had gained him clout. What follows is an album that is certainly ambitious and poetic, but also self-assured.
“There’s a nice amount of variety to keep you going. It shows Ghawas to be an adventurous songwriter, both lyrically and musically.”
The Leonard Cohen influence is not only noticeable in Ghawas’s affected whispery, talk-singing voice, it is also in the thought and care he has put into his lyrics. Indeed, if you visit his rather snazzy website and click on the tab that says ‘lyrics’, it takes you to a section entitled ‘…or rather poems’, and what you see is a collection of lyrics to his songs put in the form of a poetry collection, and while this may come across as pretentious, (indeed, for his instrumental track The Silent Parade Of Fading Youth, he has simply listed “helplessly silent” as the lyrics, which for me just remains on the right side of humorously pretentious) I feel it does work. When you read the lyrics on their own, they do have a poetic ambition. Take Firewater, for example, which I regard as possibly the best song on the album. It is presumably about his experiences in the music industry and the pressures of being used as a cash cow and how that conflicts with wanting to make art, yet with phrases such as “Here I grew alone into the rebel I knew/With all my debts and all my revenue/The silent parade of fading youth is due”, Ghawas has used pretty turns of phrase to open up the meaning to other interpretations, or at the very least he has managed to express himself in a way that is a cut above most pop musicians. While it wouldn’t be controversial to say he’s not as astute and sharp a lyricist as Cohen, it certainly is true that he demonstrates a good level of competence in this regard.
On a musical level, however, he could not be more different from Leonard Cohen unless he was a death metal artist or a Mongolian throat singer. We’re far away from Cohen-esque sparse guitars and synths, here the instrumentation is lush and rich, with calm piano opening the first song Vagabond, that solo piano evolving into the indie pop style of Firewater, and that then changes to the acoustic guitar driven love song Raven. There are forays into indie rock on songs such as Bad Blood, and symphonic pop on Ashes. While most of the album is in the piano chamber pop style of Firewater or Vagabond, the musical ambition keeps it from being a mid-tempo sludge of songs, and instead there’s a nice amount of variety to keep you going. It shows Ghawas to be an adventurous songwriter, both lyrically and musically. While there is little to complain about here, my only criticism would be that while it is competent and occasionally very good, there isn’t that much to elevate it above that. Only Raven and Firewater are catchy and memorable, and the rest is pleasant, never quite reaching the heights of those two tracks. That said, there’s also not a bad song among them, which is no mean feat. As a collection of enjoyably inventive pop songs, it succeeds on its own terms, and sometimes that’s all you need.