When World’s First Flying Machine played their last show back in February, it almost seemed like they were dead already. Save a few one-off performances, they had essentially not played live since The House You’re Living In was released in early 2010, which was (and still is) an absolute travesty, considering how great of an album that was, and how captivating and powerful their live show could be. Ben Campbell, the group’s principal songwriter and lead vocalist has quietly released a solo album, Lonely Lights, which serves as both a contradiction and continuation of his previous band.
Your perception of Lonely Lights will inevitably vary depending on how you choose to look at it; as an extension of The House You’re Living In or as a statement divorced from the Flying Machine. Taken on its own, Lonely Lights is a pleasant diversion, imbued with the fall colors and brick streets of Urbana. It’s a concise collection of mostly memorable songs, but seems almost too barebones. It charms without being annoying, but lacks a sense of purpose if you choose to ignore its backstory and context. It’s solidly written and recorded (in a bedroom, if I were to guess), opting to put Campbell’s voice at the forefront of the mix, over a solo guitar and the occasional backing vocal or extra instrument. Campbell’s voice is forceful enough on its own to carry most of the album, but a thematic vacumn exists that must be filled by the songs from The House You’re Living In. In particular, the themes of personal flaws and shrugged off emotional damage that songs like “Inefficient Machines” and “The Ferris Wheel” articulated are continued on “Plane Crash”, a Flying Machine staple that never got recorded in the full-band setting. Solo takes on other group songs such as “Long Winter” and “Rolling River” are similarly relevatory, yet infuriating (at least on a personal level), offering the tip of the iceberg, but never breaking into the emotional fireworks that the band brought to the table.
Ultimately, there’s no right way to look at Lonely Lights. It’s going to remain an enigma, simultaneously serving as an epitaph and a last peek at what could have been.