Ash songwriter, guitarist and frontman Tim Wheeler’s first solo album, “Lost Domain”, was made as a deeply personal elegy to his late father, George, who had spent the last two and a half years of his life suffering from Alzheimer’s, with the last six months spent in a dementia ward. Such is the depth of emotional involvement here, Tim was undecided whether it should ever be released, so it could almost be described as a privilege to be able to listen to an album which is part-tribute, part-therapy. I can forgive anybody reading this for imagining that “Lost Domain” would be quite self-involved and bleak, but that simply isn’t the case. Although the intensity of this work is self-evident, Wheeler’s solo début is mostly uplifting and genuinely life-affirming throughout. It is also markedly different from his Ash punk/power-pop leanings, although Tim’s talent for composition and melody are in no way diminished and, although there are a couple of tracks which are immediately enjoyable, it is the kind of more mature, subtle album you will need to listen to a few times to fully appreciate all of the musical themes and lyrical content. Tim’s voice, also, whilst sometimes criticised as not being strong enough to lead a group with as much power as Ash (personally speaking, I believe that writing those songs gives him the right to sing them) is perfectly suited for a collection of songs with such an emotional pull.
Wheeler performs the majority of the instruments on this album, with the exception of drums, strings and saxophone and his level of musicianship is certainly impressive. Instrumental “Snow In Nara” opens the album with a gentle, yet expansive, expressive feel, followed by “End Of An Era”, a beautiful track detailing the emotional remains of a failed relationship, assisted by some powerful, soaring strings. Continuing with the same theme, “Do You Ever Think Of Me” juxtaposes bitterness and hurt with an uplifting, bright string section, successfully masking the dark, brooding nature of the lyrics. “Hospital” is one of the most important and poignant compositions on the album, documenting and detailing Tim’s visits to his dementia patient father, with the pain and devastation so very apparent in every verse and, yet, the new dimension of love described gives the song a beautifully bittersweet feel. It is followed by a truly astonishing piece of songwriting, “Medicine”, written from the perspective of his father (“Please be brave if I forget your name, though it hurts, my childhood friend”). Some of the words are harrowing and difficult to hear (“Nothing left, they ignore my every plea, I am scared, oh, why have you abandoned me? I don’t know who to believe”) and it is almost impossible listen to this remarkable song without being profoundly affected by the emotional content.
“Vigil”, as the title suggests, describes remaining at his father’s bedside as he lives his final days, but the music is powerful, insistent and remarkably uplifting, seeming to portray the inner strength Wheeler drew upon during this time. “First Sign Of Spring” is a sparse piece, touching on the annual rebirth and renewal of the world which becomes even more profound when faced with death. This is followed by a swirling, interesting 5/4 time instrumental called “Vapour” and then “Hold”, a delicate piano piece which just emanates with hurt and vulnerability. One of the most enjoyable songs on the album is the title track, which has the musical characteristics and appeal of a big, classy hit from the eighties and portrays Tim’s emotional reawakening after the numbness of losing such an important and influential person from his life. The album comes to a conclusion with “Monsoon”, a gentle, musically understated piece which sadly tells of how his experience has changed him and the things he feels he needs from life. Altogether, “Lost Domain” is quite an emotionally draining and yet oddly fulfilling experience. The bonus disc on the deluxe edition (which also boasts a beautifully designed booklet) is divided into two; “Sheltered Youth” and “Keeping Vigil”. The first half contains four studio originals, “Ariadna”, “Riad”, “Sheltered Youth” and “One Last Song”; they’re all quite good, but “Ariadna”, with Johnny Marr on guitars, and the genuinely brilliant “One Last Song” are certainly the pick of the four. The second half of the bonus disc has alterative acoustic versions of “Vigil” and “Do You Ever Think Of Me?”, as well as two gorgeous piano and vocal versions of Ash’s “Shining Light” and “Sometimes” which are well worth owning.
I cannot claim to understand exactly what Tim Wheeler has been through, the emotional trauma he has experienced which has resulted in him being able to write and perform a work of such magnitude. My Grandfather suffered and died from Alzheimer’s, but, despite visiting him a few times and being upset (and in some way relieved for him and the constant confusion he lived in) when he passed away, I was quite young and cannot claim to have been close enough to him to have experienced or understood a fraction of what Tim has. If seeing my Grandfather like that was traumatic and uncomfortable enough for me in my mid-teens and gave me a small window into understanding the disease, Wheeler’s “Lost Domain”, through his art, expresses the full emotional impact and mental strain on both the sufferer and the close family. It’s not easy to listen to at times and it pulls very few punches, but there is a truly beautiful undertone to the subject matter; the love, the journey, the enlightenment and discovery of inner strength and the things that are fundamentally important in life. Losing a parent changes a person forever and, losing a parent in such a prolonged, heartbreaking manner such as Alzheimer’s is something that never leaves you. As someone who lost a father, slowly, to cancer, that is something I can empathise with. This album is not only a beautiful tribute to George Wheeler, but also magnificent work of art as a whole. The artistic depth within Tim which had been hinted at in his Ash lyrics has grown, flourished and matured beyond any reasonable expectations. As solo débuts go, “Lost Domain” is as good as they get.
Tim Wheeler’s solo debut “Lost Domain” is available now on Atomic Heart Records (distributed and marketed by RED/Sony Music Entertainment UK) from all good retailers. Tim proudly supports the Alzheimer’s Society, which works to improve the quality of life of people affected by dementia in England, Wales & Northern Ireland. For more information and to donate, please visit the Alzheimer’s Society website.
Andy Sweeney, 10th November, 2014.