I went along to this show on Saturday and took a few snaps. Enjoy.
Thanks to the wonderful Trevor Villers, got to attend the third day of the Auckland Folk Festival on Sunday 28th January. This annual three day event has three main stages, umpteen workshop spaces and it’s own tent city as most of the attendees and artists choose to camp out under the stars at the idyllic location of the Kumeu Showgrounds. The festival featured a number of big hitters such as Nadia Reid, Reb Fountain, Klezmer Rebs and Canada’s East Pointers. Another surprise was Scottish harpist Esther Swift and USA’s the Lonely Heartstring Band. Here’s some of Trevor’s wonderful photos.
Back in early August last year Wellington trio Mermaidens released their most recent long player, Perfect Body. Since then the band has toured at home and across the ditch, gaining accolades and respect for their unique sound. Now, this February they’ll get to play at their home crowd, at Wellington’s second Coastella Festival. Tim Gruar caught up with drummer Abe Hollingsworth, who along with band mates Gussie Larkin (guitars and vocals) and Lily West (vocals and bass), make up this very creative three piece.
For those that missed the memo, here’s a bit of a recap on the band. Mermaidens are a three-piece outfit based in Wellington. They are renowned for their intricate and unique song writing which is boldly raw but increasingly undergoing more refined studio production. On stage, they are reported as creating a hypnotic live synergy that leaves audiences enchanted. Their entrance onto the NZ music scene was extremely strong following the releases of their widely acclaimed debut EP O in 2014 and subsequent album Undergrowth in 2016. As a result, they’ve done dozens of national shows, and have now been picked up by Flying Nun Records. If you’ve been to any big tours lately you may have seen them supporting international acts like Death Cab For Cutie, Sleater Kinney, and Mac Demarco, and Windhand. And then there was last year’s show for Lorde’s birthday in Dunedin. More on that later.
So how do you describe their sound? Abe likes to quote his bandmate Gussie Larkin on that one “A bit of stoner rock; a smattering of ‘60s surf; some dark-dream psyche pop and some moody ‘80’s punk – and there you have it. Plenty of pedals and reverb and long, long notes.”
Over the past three years as a trio Mermaidens has put out a couple of EPs and secured themselves a name with high rotation plays on student radio. A hectic tour schedule in 2014 saw them playing a heap of shows, both in their home town Wellington, and around the country. Then Gussie Larkin and Abe took off overseas for a bit – Gussie to the UK for six months, and Abe for a three month stint in south east Asia and Japan.
Before they left Mermaidens recorded their debut album, for the first time swapping out flat bedrooms and lounges for Blue Barn Studio in Newtown. That’s where James Goldsmith, known for his work as an engineer at Munki Studios, go in on the act. Sadly Munki was levelled to make way for a new park. But Blue Barn rose from the ashes just in time for Mermaidens. Goldsmith is described by Gussie as “our number one favourite person.” Following a bit of a revival the and got to work again making music and were able to put out Perfect Body, recorded and mixed by James at the aforementioned Blue Barn Studios back in August last year.
For today’s catch up it takes a few text message exchanges to line up it all up. You see, Abe is a busy man these days. He’s on a shoot today, helping out his friends Hans Pucket, another Wellington band, who are holed up at a secret location making a new music video. And the band just returned from an Australian tour.
“It went pretty well”, reports Abe, ‘given we were an unknown band and a bit gutsy to just rock on up to the shore and tour. We did it all ourselves. Organised the tour. Booked all the shows and all the support bands. It wasn’t super successful, but we had a great time and got our music out there. That’s what you have to do.”
How did the band go down with Australian audiences? “We had pretty positive reactions. People who came up after the show were pretty positive. New Zealand might have more supportive little enclaves in each town but culturally, we and the Aussies are not so far apart.”
So, what was their best gig? “Sydney. We found this pub in a place like Newtown (Wellington). We rocked up. It was very much a ‘pub’ with green carpets and mahogany woodwork and paisley wallpaper. Old pub vibe. There were old men (maybe Dads) with stubbies on, watching the footy, drinking Fosters. And we were like ‘Oh, no. This isn’t going to work.’ Then the game finished and the ‘beer punters’ left and the indie rockers all turned up. Just like that. And we met this guy called Dean who helped with the show and put us up for the night. Drove us to the beach and the airport and helped out a lot. And the ‘snake’ did not break, in case you are asking. It was really cool to do such a seat-of-the pants show and for it to come off”
This, of course, was in contrast to supporting Lorde – on her birthday no less – late last year in Dunedin.
“Definitely. Most of our Australian shows had no dressing rooms or green gooms. They are foreign concepts. We’d use toilet cubicles or the back of a car. Lorde was different. You have a dressing room down a corridor. People with clipboards and radios and strict schedules and headsets.” So, how was the ‘Lorde’ experience with the ‘roar’ of the crowd that you don’t get in a ‘pub’. “Super exciting. We were amazed at how supportive the crowd was, given that they were mostly teen who wouldn’t have known us, but they were so cool to us. They weren’t like “you’re not Lorde. Get off the Stage.” They were very supportive. It was at the Dunedin Town Hall. The biggest capacity show on her tour. So, an extra buzz. 3500 people. The biggest audience we’ve ever played to. They were her people, obviously. But I think we won a few hearts.”
So, did they get to meet Lorde? “Unfortunately, not. But we hung with her band and had a couple of beers. So that was almost as good. It was a much easier conversation, too. Because as much as I’d like to meet her I think I would just choke. I’d be, like, ‘Hi. I love your album.’ Then what? But with the band there’s no pressure. You can just talk shit and that’s fine.” Abe also acknowledges the difference between himself and big artists like Lorde. “I feel for her because everyone wants 5 minutes of your time – so, you have to protect yourself and your sanity but be polite and gracious under pressure. She’s still human. So…”
Given the intimacy of their sound, how does it change between a pub show and a Dunedin Town Hall, like a Lorde concert. “Obviously the better the equipment, the more epic it will be. Especially, in a big room with all those speakers and a captive audience that reaches back so far. Compared to smaller speakers and people chatting and beer glasses clinking and cash registers and all that. But in both cases, we have to perform a captivating show. The vibe is different, and you have to get on top of that. Audiences can smell the fear (he laughs).”
He says that the best rooms to play are the ones where there is an absence of noise because the silence can give power to the notes and the sounds. “Notes can hang in the air with this fervency. That’s the effect we’ve been trying to effect in our Newtown studio. It’s definitely harder. That song Satsuma, that we played in Marty’s space, for the video. There’s a lot of space in it. And that’s actually the power in it. Because it’s Gussy’s guitar for a long time. Every four bars there’s one note. So, it creates the atmosphere of that song. On the record the soundscapes are performed live, so they will sound different when performed live on a different occasion. That’s the beauty, I guess.
And now they are back in the country. Back to earth. Gearing up for some shows on home turf, starting with one up the Kapiti Coast. “Coastella has a family kind of family vibe. Kinda chilled. We are looking forward to it. How will we go down? Well, we seem to have a big ‘Dad’ appreciation vibe. So, I think we are looking forward to collecting some more ‘Dad’. We’re not BBQ reggae but still listenable, but with a real appreciation from those intellectual family members (laughs). The Dads.” Not the dad that tell bad jokes then. “Ah no. I’m thinking of the ones that collect vinyl. Our new album is on digital and vinyl. Dad appreciate that I think.” Were there many dads coming to those Aussie shows, I wonder? “Perhaps the more bewildered ones who’d stayed to long in the pub after work and should of cleared out before the gig got under way.”
Mermaidens play Coastella Festival 17 February – Southwards Car Museum, Paraparaumu, Kapiti Coast
Watch The Mermaidens 13th Floor Video Session Here:
Originally published 13 Dec 2017 : https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/al-anderson-the-original-wailers-the-13th-floor-interview/
Reggae Royalty, Jamaica’s THE ORIGINAL WAILERS featuring Al Anderson return to NZ this month for one exclusive show at the Powerstation. The Original Wailers will be performing the iconic Bob Marley & The Wailers album Legend in full, plus a special encore of the Greatest Hits album.
Anderson has been a session musician and band member in a whole host of groups over the years including Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Lauryn Hill, Ben Harper, The Centurions, Traffic, UB40, Bad Brains and the Rolling Stones plus many more. Tim Gruar had a chat to Anderson about being in the Wailers, Bob Marley and touring New Zealand in 1979.
I well remember meeting Dalvanius Prime. He’d just made Poi E and was speaking to a group of student radio DJ’s, including me, about musical influences. It was the mid 1980’s. The biggest influence on Maori, he argued was Bob Marley’s tour in 1979. He argued that this man gave rise to political movements and spawned like Aotearoa, Dread Beat and Blood and Herbs.
On the phone from the US, I talked to one of the original touring artists on The Babylon by Bus Tour concert tour. “I love your Maori people, they were so friendly and so hospitable. I’ve been back a few times and every time I learn more and more about the culture. I follow, from a distance, the land rights, Dame (Whina Cooper) and the marches (Hikoi). They gotta stay strong.”
I asked him about what Kiwi bands he knows and he rattles of about 20 names. I catch The Black Seeds, Herbs and Aotearoa but he speaks so fast and furiously I can barely keep up. He is passionate and well educated about New Zealand.
“I can remember the tour. We started in Japan around April and finished in Honolulu. We got to see the whole of the Pacific. Wow. So far away for me and I really love it there, even now.” The tour should have started with two shows in Ivory Coast, he tells me, but was cancelled due to various ‘un-documented reasons’. He won’t say but implies dodgy dealings. But that was all to New Zealand’s advantage he thinks. It meant that we were definitely on the tour. Whilst here, he along with the rest of the band got to visit marae and were welcomed like heroes. It was a profound experience for him. “I was overwhelmed by the support. When we played Western Springs, we couldn’t believe the love.” Sadly, it was Marley’s only tour including concerts in Asia and Oceania, as he died of cancer a little over a year later.
New York born, Berklee-trained Anderson had previously worked with Aerosmith and Stevie Winwood. As a bluesy rock session guitarist in Chris Blackwell’s Island Records stable when he was invited to join a young singer/songwriter named Bob Marley and his band the Wailers. That began a relationship that saw him in the middle of a musical, social, and political movement (Rastafarianism) whose international implications provided experiences satisfying, frustrating, and even life-threatening ‘In New York, we had the FBI tracking us”, he reminds me, when I tell him how Rastafarianism has become popular in New Zealand and how it influenced music here. “I’m glad that it went down well there because Americans, at the time, were scarred of us. They were to ‘square’ you know? They thought we were revolutionaries. We had access to guns and dope and many other things. That’s what they’d claim. We knew Castro.”
Al Anderson & Bob Marley
I ask him about what he can remember of the early days with the Wailers. “I heard from Chris that Bob wanted a blues sort of sound. He was always trying things and he wanted more than that ‘chika-chika’ sound you get from the Caribbean sound. You know, the traditional sound.” Marley had Nashville musician Wayne Perkins (Bobby Womack, etc) playing on songs like ‘Concrete Jungle’, noted for the memorable guitar solo at a time when reggae didn’t have these. “Nobody’d done stuff like that but I didn’t want to play like that. So, when Bob asked me in he’d had most of the guitar stuff on tracks on Natty Dread already done but needed some more guitar, BV’s horns, acoustic harmonica. He asked me, “What did I hear?” I wasn’t really sure what he wanted. I did a little hard rock and blues guitar. He didn’t really go for that. Chris and Bob didn’t want that sound. So, I’m thinking “I know what they want. They want that sweet blues thing.” So, in the end Anderson played more sweetly for No Woman, No Cry, to give Bob a more tender feel to sing by. ‘Rebel Music’, on the other hand was more aggressive. So Jah Seh was more of a soaring and majestic song “so I tried that. I was learning to play outside my comfort zone, too.” For Anderson, who was already a seasoned player it was one of his hardest sessions ever “because I had to please both Richard and Bob – my Boss and his Boss!”
“At the time, I didn’t know this guy called ‘Bob’. Obviously, I knew who Chris. I’d been in the studio with him. He was picky, his ears guided things in certain ways that I didn’t always agree with.” But then, Anderson says, he was only a sessions man.
Then the Natty Dread tour the turned him from session player to band member. That prompted a trip to Jamaica, where the band was based for rehearsals and writing. “I left my home in England for three years. I couldn’t go back to see my family or even make contact. We lived in Trenchtown (Jamaica) in between. I think people thought I was privileged – but that was Chris, coming from a wealthy family. I had to learn patois, eat Jamaican food.” Anderson reminds me that before Natty Dread was released the band slept rough and poor. “I slept on the floor for a year before they distributed the album.” Bob, he says was generous to a fault. Despite already having three children to raise, he wanted to put up Anderson in a hotel. But Anderson knew he couldn’t afford it, so he chose to live like the locals instead. He stayed in Bull Bay, where Bob had a house with Rita. “I was plagued with mosquitos. A kid from England like me got eaten alive! ‘Bob had a tough time, he says and he knew that to understand the music he had to have a “real tough time”, too. To feel and learn how and where he grew up.”
Aston “Family Man” Barrett
Anderson has been documented many times for his opinions on the Barrett brothers, who made up the core of the Wailers at the time. “I hadn’t met Carly (drummer Carlton Barrett) or his brother Family Man (bassist Aston Barrett) but I got to know them really well over time.” He says Carly was like the “jewel in the crown” of the band. Funny, a great cook, a real charmer. But Aston was always a bit selfish. Later on, he recognised the split that caused so many divisions in the Marley family legacy.
“Family Man is no leader. (He swears his name). He’s so poorly educated and thinks of nobody but himself…the most selfish of individuals I’ve met. I don’t think Bob liked him because he didn’t leave anything to him. When he was (getting cancer treatment) in Germany. He didn’t come to see him. Bob asked. We all went, even Rita, the band, everyone. He (Family Man) never bothered…. For Family man – it was all about the money. No heart.”
Anderson eventually became very cynical of the Marley management team. He felt that Bob was being exploited by everyone around him. It started when he first joined the band. He felt like an outsider. “Peter (Tosh) and Bunny (Wailer) didn’t like me at all because they saw me as this guy Chris (Blackwell) had brought in to break up the band. But that wasn’t the way. Peter became close friends. The ways Bob’s management ran the band wasn’t what I was used to – no contracts, loose royalties, hand shake style participation gratuities. It was all loose and fluid. It was how Bob got taken advantage of and how the royalties for his albums became so murky after he died. Everyone wanted a piece of him.”
Originally, Anderson says, the band didn’t directly receive royalties for anything they did. When they did get cut in, the payment system was not transparent. “You couldn’t see statements. It was hard to know how much the cut was from the original. For me I wanted to play with everyone and I need to plan things out. I wanted to play with Jimmy Cliff, and I did. With him the invoicing was easy. The contract was easy. Not with Bob.”
Anderson left the Wailers after Rastaman Vibration (1976) due to managerial problems, he says. “Bob was a great, fantastic leader, and a guy you could talk to about ideas. But as soon as Don Taylor’s new management came along he – well – literally took the crumbs out of our mouths. He had no heart or soul. It was all business. And he was grubby. Cold. And I’d had enough. I was struggling, hurting. I went to work for Peter Tosh. He was an artist and a friend.” “Because for me, and Peter, it was all about the music, until the politics came.” There was a number of incidents where Anderson figures he wasn’t paid properly for tours. “The still owe me $10K for the Legend Tour.”
Anderson reckons that Tosh could have run for Prime Minister. He saw him as wise. He would work with many who couldn’t read or understand the contract side of the music business, unconditionally. He says that when reggae and Rastafarianism really took off it became an overwhelming and metaphysical experience for them. “Being political on stage was part of the act, you know. But Bob and Peter took it off stage, too. I wasn’t into that.” Bob was a leader, with followers from all over the world, he was close with everyone from was close with Michael Manley to Fidel Castro. “Communism in the Western hemisphere didn’t work. It was a threat, not an ideology. We had the FBI on our trail for being revolutionaries and speaking out about human rights – because of the connections. I left because of that, too. I’d had enough of Don Taylor, the politics. I loved Bob but I wasn’t going to risk my life.” He’s referring to America’s opposition to the connections that were made to potential revolutionary action. “Africa Unite? Cuba Unite? Jamaica Unite? You don’t say shit like that and just walk away from it. There are consequences.”
Finally, we get to the origins of the band. I can see Anderson has been building up to this. There is confusion over the Wailers ‘brand’ with there being several out there, I ask. Peter, Bunny, and Bob are considered the Original Wailers, of which only Bunny is still alive, and not a member of the current band (The Original Wailers). Then, there is The Wailers led by Family Man.
“The word ‘original’ in Original Wailers refers to the original intent,” Anderson says, “it means the original vision of Bob’s band and his music. His vibe, you know. It’s not the original members in a group.” The Original Wailers was formed by Al Anderson and another former Wailer Junior Marvin in 2008. However, has now Marvin departed the band. Despite the name, the band has never included any of the original members of the Wailers. This tour will have all the songs from the Legend compilation album (1984). Marley fans will be getting a veritable smorgasbord of great tunes.
The Wailers Band, led by Family Man (Aston Barrett) is a morph of the original Wailers, with all but Barrett on board. Both bands claim to be the ultimate Marley legacy. Family Man’s last tour was in 2015. Both exist together and apart. Both perform Marley’s songs. Anderson optimistically states that we (the Original Wailers) can “co-exist with those other people (The Wailers Band). I want to to continue with the Original Wailers and reach out to its rightful audience, show people respect and honour Bob. That’s it, really.”
First published at: https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/charlotte-gainsbourg-rest-because/#more-98354
Sung mostly in French, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new album, Rest, is no simple melancholic melodrama. There’s no bitchin’, cussin’ or swooning; no mumbling oaths or references to languid loss or betrayed consciousness. Instead we find her caught up in a tangle of grief, history and family legacies. It is both personal and intimate, yet cinematic and more oversized than an IMAX screening.
Being the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French musical icon/perv/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg Charlotte Gainsbourg never had a chance. With her family constantly in the spotlight, it was never likely that she would grow up to be a bank teller. Even as a young actor, the talent apple never fell far from the tree. She debuted on the silver screen as a precocious adolescent as Catherine Deneuve’s daughter in the film Paroles et musique (1984). Two years later she scooped a César Award (the French Oscar’s) for “Most Promising Actress” for L’effrontée. Since then she’s made dozens of French films and several more for controversial film maker Lars Von Trier.
Her music career also started with some attention when she sung with her father on the song Lemon Incest at the age of 12 and released an album with her father at the age of 15. Since then her releases have been more sporadic, but thanks to her collaborations with Jarvis Cocker, Air and Daft Punk, her album releases have become global events. The 2006 effort 5:55 was largely written by Cocker and the French electro-pop duo Air. And then she topped that one with 2009’s IRM, written and produced by Beck, apparently inspired by Gainsbourg’s 2007 head injury.
Like her father, her albums have been consistently lush, forward-thinking, well-crafted, challenging with their ideology, and pristine in their recording. She moves between simple guitars to overt orchestration as if it was simply an extension of her imagination. And you can’t discount her sexy, breathy, delicate and vulnerable vocals which often sound like a very young Jane Birkin – no surprise really, as all of this is part of the Gainsbourg family trademark.
However, despite all of this, as an artist we’ve never really seen the real Charlotte: – her feelings and her perspectives and observations. She prefers to hide amongst the music and lyrics of others. These individual stories are what makes us human, performance is only half of it. There’s only so much you can say with aesthetics. At some point, as a singer you must reveal and uncover with your own words, to let us know what’s really in there.
And so, on this new album Rest, Gainsbourg finally opens up and gives us her story, partially inspired by her grief following the death of her sister Kate Barry, who fell from the window of her Paris apartment in 2013. This is the first time she’s written her own lyrics, which move fluidly between French and English as she laments her sister, idolises her father and, through the eyes of her children laments how time passes so quickly and how life is so fleeting (the deliciously lush Dans Vos Airs Gainsbourg reflects on being a parent). On the surface. It all sounds a bit morbid and laconic but somehow her ‘Frenchness’ manages to make it all very beautiful.
The album’s title reveals all of the meaning: In English “Rest,” evoking eternal rest; in death; on the gravestone and in the religious connotations of the afterlife. However, in French when Gainsbourg sings, “reste,” she means means “stay”, remain, do not depart, eternally present – constant, even. Of all here, the title song was written in the closest proximity to her sister’s passing. It seems like she is simultaneously laying the body to rest and willing her to remain. “Reste avec moi s’il te plaît” (Stay with me please). It is a song is something of a low-key but slightly sci-fi -lullaby dedicated to lost loved ones. It was penned by and produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and, naturally shines like a beacon. It compliments Gainsbourg’s whispered vocals, and her intriguing lyrics that tell of ‘walking on air’ and ‘moonlit skies’. And because of its reserved, economic treatment it’s a clear standout.
It has been revealed that Gainsbourg’s sister may have fallen intentionally. If so, that makes the hurt even more intense. And in her song Kate, which is sung in French, Gainsbourg yearns for their life remain untouched; to remain together; to continue as it was: “On d’vait vieillir ensemble” (We should grow old together.)
Elsewhere, Gainsbourg incorporates childhood memories, playground games like on the dirge-like song Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses and fans of ex-Beatle Sir Paul will sit up and take notice of Songbird in a Cage, which was written and performed with McCartney, no less. And no surprise that it sounds just like one of his, too.
Sonically, if that is the right way to consider this, Rest is composed and produced under the watchful eye of Frank Ocean’s producer DJ SebastiAn (aka Sebastian Akchoté) who applies a rather predictable cinematic quality to the album’s electro-pop tracks such as the urgent and ominous Lying With You. Given that I’ve only just seen Branagh’s recent remake of Ms AG’s Murder on The Orient Express, I was instantly reminded of the film when I heard the playful Rococo-tinged number I’m A Lie. The track grows quietly on your subconscious, like the gnawing in Poroit’s brain cells when he’s problem solving. That’s probably helped along by the vaguely creepy synth hook paired with lyrics (in French, again) that describe physiological distress of longing and desire. “J’entretiens l’inconfort / À l’allure qui dort “(I maintain the discomfort / At the pace that sleeps) and later in the song she sings “Je m’installe sans pudeur / Face à mes repentirs / Vieux tracas, tendres peurs” (I settle without modesty / Facing my repentance / Old worries, tender fears).
DJ SebastiAn is responsible for the big beats on this album. From funky bass lines and sturdy, meaty beats to sweeping orchestral synths and some very elegant keyboard intervals he adds the colours that make up this variable palate. Although he’s not alone, co-producing alongside Danger Mouse and our own son, Connan Mockasin, plus some strings and horns arranged by Owen Pallett.
Still, it’s DJ SebastiAn’s versatility that surprises when he resets poet Sylvia Plath’s lines to a shimmering disco thumper – totally unexpected. Sylvia Says is a perplexingly funky but delightful nod to Plath’s poem Mad Girl’s Love Song (1953) (which feature the lines: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead/ I lift my lids and all is born again. / (I think I made you up inside my head.”
On her six-minute epic, Deadly Valentine, Gainsbourg she appropriates traditional wedding vows and delivers them in an unnerving, half-whispered/half sung manner that reminds me of David Lynch movies. Only the sweeping strings that swell the drama save it from diving deep into Blue Velvet territory. Only just. With images of demented nuptials and brides floating in water, close to drowning, close to ascending, the metaphors for grief are endless and overwhelmingly French. For only they could do this so well and get away with it.
Like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s entire career, Rest is imperfect, but remains beguiling and important. She almost wants to produce music that is slightly damaged and incomplete, lest you become satisfied and move on and away to someone else. Now that she’s pouring more of heart into her music, the need to remain compelling to give voice and an audience is more and more necessary. Yet, songs as deep as these also affirm life, transforming individual and personal suffering into something public. It’s a brave woman that can do that. There are few things are more terrifying than exposing raw wounds to others.
With songs that are dreamy, anxious, bombastic but yet fragile Portland’s beloved 11-piece collective, Typhoon, are everything I love about America’s art rock scene right now. They are Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear and Portugal The Man all at once. I just wish they’d choose something a bit more up-beat to write about.
“Listen, of all the things you’re about to lose/This will be the most painful,” declares vocalist Kyle Morton on the quiet storm, Wake, which opens this album, “This is not your loss, this is your offering”. You must ask if that’s a funeral party or a new dawning he’s referring to. In some ways, it is the start and the end of it all. “Wake and I have been reborn/The tide concedes that homely shore and I am benighted/All my lines unlearned/Cry out, “Will God, or somebody, please turn the light on?”” Musically this song barely breaths, hovering like gossamer above the lowest decibel before exploding at the ending into a rallying cry – a call to arms. Or maybe a confessional invite.
The song is also the disclaimer for the album’s concept which centres on a fictional character who is slowly losing his memory. This is something I’ve experienced very recently, as I watched a bright and vibrant soul wither to a dried husk as a result of Alzheimer’s. For me this was a painful listen and all too real at times. How could he know what I’d gone through?
Maybe Morton was speaking for himself or maybe he was channeling his influences like David Lynch, Federici Fellini and Christopher Nolan, providing a slightly surrealist mirror of all the sensations of fear, anxiety and claustrophobia. Over and over the album asks questions about what happens to a person when they lose their sense of self and history. ‘Do we cease to be?’ On Darker this is harshly revealed: “I don’t wanna live with the kinds of trouble I keep finding myself in/Mirror to my left, and mirror to my right/A void stretching out on either side/Is it your face or mine?”
It’s a deeply moving and challenging album and ambitious, not shying away from contemporary life and the feelings of fear and anxiety. To navigate the album, one requires some inside knowledge: It is divided into four movements (Floodplains, Flood, Reckoning, and Afterparty) to represent the mental phases the main character goes through where he first realizes that he’s going downhill, then the struggle to hold on, the chaos of the new reality, and finally, the acceptance before he succumbs to this horrific fate. In one sense this is pure opera, theatre macabre and reality, all too real. I saw this happen with my own eyes. This is how it happens. Anyone who’s experienced people with mental illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s will tell you.
This is a literate and wordy album and you will need liner notes (which are, fortunately available on the web). It also helps if you’re well read – unlike my self – or at least can access Google. It is packed with ancient and modern, and with tracks titled Empiricist and Chiaroscuro, as well as references to writers as varied as Dante and Samuel Beckett it’s a complex and often bleak listen. At times the general themes and narratives can be emotionally cold at times. The quiet, clinical track Chiaroscuro, in particular sounds like a Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens song, particularly from the recent album about his parents. The lyrics give us a stark kitchen sink drama of decline: “Car keys clatter on the tile/You lunge for the phone/Your voice like a frightened child/“He’s had some kinda stroke!”/Be calm my dear/I’m just moving a little slow/As it all approaches absolute zero.”
The story continues on Darker, which whilst more upbeat is far more sinister, too. The lines
How long can I keep this tired act together?/It’s a short ambulance ride and then the waiting room forever/So tell me how do I make the right move now?/Prepare me for the moment when my mind goes out/I am trying hard to follow the sound.”
You cannot fault the undoubted ambition and detailing that intertwines. From a compositional point of view, this one has a fierce collection of light and shade, ebb and flow, release and hold. One example is the fractured approach taken on Rorschach which samples not only indie rock, demented song writing in the verses and the emotional vocal manipulations employed by Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver. Also in there is a pristine violin, distorted interruptions and some semi-apocalyptic imagery. It reminded me of songs like Funeral by Arcade Fire and earlier material from Burial.
While that was one of the more accessible songs Offerings is not always so easy. At times it becomes overwhelmingly claustrophobic. Unusual shows us that even when pitched in surrealistic clothing the position of losing your mind is far from extra ordinary: “In his brave new world/It’s gonna take some getting used to/The cretin’s lips are curled/He swings a wrecking ball around the court room/And I’d say, “Just wait it out”/But I’m afraid it’s just a desert beyond the sand dune”. To make matters worse Morton turns the lost imagery into a courtroom drama, as if mental decay is a felony of some sort: “It’s unusual/Yeah I know I must be losing my mind/Yeah it’s cruel and unusual/Can’t tell the punishment apart from the crime/You’re running out of time”. The song finishes with a clutter of voices and wormhole distortions spiralling into an empty void as if our hero is being sucked up into a wasteland on nothing.
By the end of this record, which Morton calls the ‘fourth movement’, the poor fellow has been beaten in to acceptance, leaving behind exhausted, ruined listeners. Sleep, appropriately named is the final nightmare: “It’s a mixed bag for the living/Full of sorrow, full of grief/And the moment stretches on…Like a self-enclosed short circuit goes around forever until it’s gone”.
The hidden track that bookends Sleep (appropriately labelled Afterparty) brings us back to the wake that opened it all. Staring off like a sing-a-long at an Irish pub wake – boisterous and lustrous before developing into the finale of some imaginary Broadway musical we finally get that release all souls have when they reach Heaven, and all is restored (we hope). So, goes the chorus: “Out of time and out of place/From the mortal coil deliver/To the great expanse found in the space/Between celestial fissures/Where the sick or soft of mind/Where they’re hardly disfigured/You shed your clothes, you jump the boat/And join us in the river”.
This might be a sprawling, ambitious work but it offers a lot. I also came out of it in a fevered panic of doom. Having lived with a man who has gone through this for real, it was achingly real and devastating. I hate this band for creating this wonderful awful truth. Every line and every emotion on this rollercoaster ride seemed so real. No one else, even Trent Reznor, could make this scalpel cut so close.