An album called Sadlands, released under the auspices of Winsome Management, consists of songs sporting titles such as "Pain," "Loneliness," and "Crying." The thoughtful listener has ample reason to anticipate a musical mope. But there's actually very little that's precious or depressing about Sadlands, the second LP by Triangle-based singer-songwriter Thomas Costello, who now calls his backing band of area pros Humanize (né Human Eyes). In spite of the sad-bastard earmarks, these nine songs are seductive, reflecting a melodic new wave heart, even when the subject is the cold embrace of existential despair.
Costello waited until he reached the age of 30 to release 2012's Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a poignant set of bedroom pop that limned the onset of maturity and reflected on the quickly fading past through post-punk touchstones. Its long gestation imparted the quality of a personal project, distilled from years of collected sentiments. Sadlands has a more immediate feel, suggesting the work of an actual band.
While the eighties fixation remains, Costello's found inspiration in different pockets of that era. On the angular opening track, "Different," Costello's voice recalls Tom Verlaine's updated Buddy Holly-isms, while pointy-elbowed riffs and hints of surf guitar evoke a distinct New York new wave astringency. The guitar embroidery of "Feeling Blue" and the unmistakable "You Can't Hurry Love"-via-the-Smiths cadence of "Set Free" make no bones about Costello's deep devotion to Johnny Marr.
Though the stylistic seams still show, Costello's new songs demonstrate an emerging confidence. On the lush, synth-driven "Pain," he musters a youthful yet entirely credible croon that honors the song's Bryan Ferry intimations. There's greater complexity to the songwriting, too. For "I Found Heaven," he revisits the beguiling fake-banjo figure from "A Sight For Human Eyes," the opener from his first record. Alongside a bump in BPM, Derek Torres's chiseled bass line and arpeggiating synthesizer shape an altogether transporting moment. Even as he celebrates the life-affirming essence of the now, though, Costello can't keep from pondering death and decay.
If you get the sense you've heard these songs before, these echoes are both a tribute to Costello's musical heroes and, sometimes, a limitation. Now that he's refined his approach and sharpened up his ensemble, it raises hopes for a watershed third record, with or without a misleading title.