The Third Ear

Music, words, imagination

Album review: Waterless Hills – The Great Mountain

Waterless Hills is less a band and more a perfect storm of musicians. Drummer Andrew Cheetham (of Richard Dawson and Irma Vep fame) assembled a crack team of experimentally-minded musicians: fellow Manchester luminaries dbh (violin) and Gavin Clarke (bass) are joined by guitarist C Joynes (whose solo album The Borametz Tree was one of last year’s highlights), and the quartet recorded an album of semi-improvised instrumentals in a single day.

 

The Great Mountain is an involved and involving listen. Even without the traditional prop of lyrics, these pieces hint at multiple disparate references, from Brit folk-rock and desert blues to early cinema and modernist literature. The album is presented as a soundtrack to an imaginary film. It is inspired by cinema of the 1930s but shares something too with the Popol Vuh-scored 1970s work of Werner Herzog, in spirit if not in sound. There is a layer of sandy dust over the whole thing, pricked regularly by bursts of light in the form of Joynes’ rippling or ravaged guitar parts and dbh’s shrills of violin that fall like sheet rain.

Each of the eight pieces creates a distinct musical topography, but equally each scene is part of a wider panorama: the effect is a little like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or Peter Greenaway’s beautiful short film, A Walk Through H. The musicians – and by association the listener – are explorers in illusory or imaginary landscapes, created seemingly on the fly. An Untidy Country Of Glaring Limestone is wide, wild and filmic, its percussive flourishes strewn like boulders across its dry, bright plain. The quartet’s improvisational skill is evident throughout; their ability to react to each other – and more impressively, to the musical world of their instantaneous collective vision – is remarkable.

While the music itself is not devotional, its seems inspired by acts of devotion, perhaps of an occult variety. They Squatted By The Tank In The Light Of A Lantern, which builds from a bedrock of free drumming and sinewy guitar to a hoary post-rock mid-part and a mournful violin fade-out, could be describing a simple act of concealment or something altogether more mysterious. And if post-rock and avant-folk are the main touchstones, there is much more variation than you might imagine. The lengthy Horns Lit By The Rising Sun is a flighty bit of free improv that knocks on the door of spiritual jazz, and closer The Eastern Side Of Walantar gallops in on a country groove and never lets up, attracting fragments of other genres – kraut rock, 60s psych – to it as it progresses.

There is never a dull moment on The Great Mountain, and not an ounce of flab. Every rise and fall, every shift in cadence and demented flourish and prolonged hush serve a greater purpose, and taken together it is thrilling.

 

The Great Mountain is released on 29th February 2020

Albums of the Year 2019

Here they are:

 

40. Frankie Cosmos – Close It Quietly

Greta Kline and friends doing what they do best: perky, quirky, emotionally cutting pop with a DIY slant.

 

39. Toby Hay – New Music for the 12 String Guitar

One of the UK’s finest guitarists returns with another evocative and beautifully performed collection of instrumentals.

 

38. Belle and Sebastian – Days of the Bagnold Summer (OST)

I wouldn’t usually admit a soundtrack on to the List, but B&S’s latest offering has the feel of a proper album. There are some good new tunes and some great re-recordings of old ones.

 

37. Julia Kent – Temporal

Contemporary cello music at its finest, lifting neo-classical and avant-garde textures into a post-rock structure to create something that is almost architectural.

 

36. Alameda 5 – Eurodome

Polish label Instant Classic is always good for a few excellent albums a year. This one filters scratchy atmospherics through minimal modernism, jazz and krautrock with just a dark hint of the group’s noise and metal origins.

 

35. Julia Reidy – Brace, Brace

Sombre, shifting, exploratory 12-string guitar experiments augmented by feild recordings and Reidy’s hushed vocals.

 

34. motherbear – The Ghosts That Follow You

Sarah Wahoff and Simone Sparks create sparse acoustic soundworlds at the crossroads between experimental folk and ambient.

 

33. Catherine Rudie – The Möbius Kiss

Unnerving, experimental folk. Rudie charts the weird rituals of the twenty-first century. (Read a review here.)

 

32. Sandro Perri – Soft Landing

Lots of albums with long-winded guitar-driven songs this year. This one’s got the added advantage of having words in it too.

 

31. Alasdair Roberts – The Fiery Margin

A timely meditation on societal division. As poetic as a takedown of Brexit can be.

 

30. Ezra Furman – Twelve Nudes

His punkiest and most direct release to date.

 

29. Nina Keith – Maranasati 19111

An album informed by natural processes and sounds, and inspired by memory, trauma and death. It’s ambient, experimental and surprisingly uplifting.

 

28. Billy Woods – Terror Management

Hip-hop at its cleverest. Socially aware, funny and bleak.

 

27. Alex Rex – Otterburn

The shadows of Dylan and the Incredible String Band loom large over Otterburn. But the shadow of the death of Alex Neilson’s brother looms still larger. A striking, strident album about death and moving on.

 

26. Shannon Lay – August

A quietly beautiful folk-pop album about the creative process. Deep extended metaphors – most notably the reflective and refractive power of rivers – give the whole thing a bright, prismatic and multi-layered quality.

 

25. William Tyler – Goes West

Yet another Tyler album full of shifting, widescreen guitar instrumentals.

 

24. Helen McCookerybook – Green

Former post-punk icon now channelling Bunyan and Baier.

 

23. Blithe Field – Ward Unbending

Ambient music at its springiest and most fluid.

 

22. Sarah Louise – Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars

One of the great guitarists of this young century.

 

21. Andrew Wasylyk – The Paralian

A modern jazz neo-classical minimal ambient library music album exploring the Scottish coastline. What’s not to like about them apples?

 

20. Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love

Norway’s finest at her most accessible but also her most biting.

 

19. House and Land – Across the Field

Sarah Louise Henson (see above) and Sally Anne Morgan serve up some delicious freak folk with a distinct Appalachian/Ozark feel.

 

18. Nickk Droppkickk – From Ybor

Is vaporwave still a thing? Can you put it in a pot with neo-classical, ambient and modern jazz? Do you like taking drugs? If you answered yes to any of the above then you’ll probably like this.

 

17. Matthew J. Rolin – Matthew J. Rolin

Lotta good experimental guitar music out there at the moment. This is amongst the best…

 

16. C. Joynes & The Furlong Bray – The Borametz Tree

…as is this.

 

15. Garden Centre – A Moon For Digging

Brighton lo-fi bedroom pop punk imps keep doing their thing.

 

14. Ela Orleans – Movies For Ears

An inspired introduction to off-kilter the world of the Glasgow-based Polish electronic pop experimentalist.

 

13. Brighde Chaimbeul – The Reeling

Chaimbeul makes the music of the traditional Hebridean smallpipes sound like some kind of future drone magic.

 

12. UCC Harlo

Moves between experimental ambient modernism and explorations of medieval music with ease, and covers a lot of ground in between, always with an eye on environment and place.

 

11. Ylliy – Soft Touch

At its best, this sort of electronic DIY bedroom-pop can capture the most ephemeral of moods, and Ylliy is a quiet and unheralded master of the genre.

 

10. Erin Durant – Islands

Mixing the ambition of mid-70s Joni Mitchell, the pitch-perfect piano pop of Carole King and the country chops of Emmylou Harris, Durant’s literate and wide-ranging album is one of the finds of the year.

 

9. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis

Roberts is one of the most uncompromising and important voices in the world of experimental music right now. The fourth instalment of her giant Coin Coin project examines race, memory, identity and family through the historical lens of black American music.

 

8. Frog – Count Bateman

Frog is now effectively a solo project, but that hasn’t stopped Danny Bateman recording some of the most memorable songs of the year. Americana as it should be – free of lazy tropes and saturated with exquisite personal and topographical detail. Here’s a little review I wrote, if you fancy it.

 

7. Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs

An album that does exactly what its title implies. Hushed and undramatic but drenched in Pratt’s signature vocal style. She has added minimal piano to her softly stroked guitar and the results are beautiful.

 

6. Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

If you thought his new-found domestic bliss would blunt his creative urge or alter his deadpan poetic delivery, think again.

 

5. Nivhek – After Its Own Death/Walking in a Spiral Towards the House

Liz Harris, AKA Grouper, produced her most ambitious work to date: four long, interlinked ambient pieces that seem to play with time and place and temperature and all sorts of things that music just shouldn’t be able to do.

 

4. Hannah Diamond – Reflections

One of the most sincere, sad and quietly euphoric pure pop albums in years. The sound of PC Music shedding its veneer of irony in the face of a crumbling relationship.

 

3. Richard Dawson – 2020

A state-of-the-nation address like no other, Dawson’s opus is angry, sad, purposeful and miraculously filled with hope. I wrote about it here for Folk Radio.

 

2. Wished Bone – Sap Season

Ashley Rhodus songwriting just keeps getting better. There are few artists able to control and manipulate a mood so convincingly and so subtly. Typically rambling review here.

 

1. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

The final, and perhaps defining, artistic statement from one of the great songwriters and poets of his or any other generation. I wrote in detail about just how brilliant this record is weeks before David Berman’s devastating suicide.

 

 

 

Album review: Wished Bone – Sap Season

What made Wished Bone’s Cellar Belly my favourite album of 2018? I still don’t quite know. Those songs are difficult to write about, difficult to dissect or to parse, even now. And not because they are difficult to listen to. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ashley Rhodus’ melodies seep into cracks and before you know it they have filled the room, small things that expand like puffs of dust then set like amber. Songs that are bright but not quite clear (though they are coloured by experience, not tainted by nostalgia). Often, a Wished Bone song will trick you with its openness and adaptability: a song you thought was perfect for an early-autumn afternoon will reveal a new face on a spring morning. A bed song can turn into a mountain song. They are unconfined things.

That is not to say that they are vague. They have the specificity of a life being lived. Their malleability is one of quiet immersion – you can almost feel them on your skin. Examining these songs as songs sometimes feels like an unnecessary incursion, but not to do so would do a disservice to Rhodus and her unique artistry. Cellar Belly was a debut album that was all about the exploration of melody and its relation to mood. Songs trembled on the edge of melody; they reached back to a folk idiom without ever losing their currency or their dreamlike immediacy. And in a sense the songs on Sap Season are equally dreamlike, and somehow more immediate. If the melodies on Cellar Belly sounded freshly-formed and full of the wonder of their own creation, those on Sap Season are more obviously the product of a songwriter in absolute command of her gift. This command has enabled Rhodus to branch out musically: the sense of experimentation helps her serve up a more varied platter.

Moon, for example, brings Brian Kupillas’ impressionistic piano runs to the fore, while the chorus of Trees We Couldn’t Tell The Size Of introduces Spencer Radcliffe’s soft sax that holds a perfectly clouded mirror up to the longing and regret of the lyrics. Pink Room is scalded by a distorted electric guitar. As a song that, in Rhodus’ words, skirts ‘the line between love and friendship’, it crystallises an important and hard to pin down aspect of her songwriting: the ability to describe edges, moments of lapse and flux.

The range of writing here is bigger than before, too. Rhodus still has the ability to capture those small, meaningful moments, but she she can also spin out an engaging and lengthy narrative. Cops is not quite like anything else she has released. Ripe with autobiographical detail, it has the feel of a kind of personal creation myth (think the Mamas and Papas’ Creeque Alley, but more self-contained and free of hubris). Rhodus has recently moved to California from Ohio and this displacement features in the background of Cops and a number of other songs here. In Sarah she recognises that she never wanted to be the kind of person who moves ‘to California looking for the sun’, but geographical movement seems to be a kind of necessary change, a natural shift that runs parallel to creative development (which stands in stark contrast to ideal of the Great American Male Folk Singer, so eager to document his travels and make his mark on the landscape). For Rhodus, the journey to her partner’s room can hold as much significance as a trip to the other side of the continent, and a song like Saucer Eyes – stylistically something of a throwback to her earlier songs with its deceptively simple, unerringly evocative melody – manages to encapsulate both extremes.

The order of the tracks plays an important part here too. The rhythmic lope of opener Hold Me is reflected in the last song, The One Who. Both are sparse in terms of lyrical style, and both rely on quotidian detail and both celebrate the imperfection of a relationship. One of the most direct and specific moments, Cops, is followed by the most elusive, Dodger Dreamfield, which wavers and shimmers like something seen through a screen of leaves. Deep in the belly of the album, between a song about trees and a song about the moon, the title track equates the strange fecundity and mortality of the natural world with human melancholy and desire.

There are subtle ways in which Sap Season is a departure from its predecessor, or at least a small evolution, but essentially it is, like everything Rhodus has released since her 2015 EP Pseudio Recordings, a collection of apparently simple indie-folk songs with a lo-fi aesthetic. And something else remains: the intangible nature of these songs, the way they hang in the air, and in the mind. And that is something that’s very difficult to put into words, other than by saying that Wished Bone represents songwriting at its most wonderful and transformative.

Album review: Frog – Count Bateman

frog.jpegWe didn’t know it at the time, but the previous Frog record – last year’s Whatever We Probably Already Had It – was a kind of farewell. With drummer Tom White relocating to London, the band essentially stopped being a band and became the solo concern of frontman Danny Bateman, who has taken on the new challenge with enthusiasm. The album’s title is perhaps a reference to Bateman’s new status as a musical loner, and all the freedom and confidence and fear that might be eddying around him as he begins a new phase in his career.

Count Bateman is paradoxical in the sense that it sounds unmistakably like a Frog record but absolutely nothing like any Frog record that has already been made. This is something that can only be achieved by a songwriter with a impressively-developed artistic vision and a huge range of reference. So while these songs were mostly written while White was still a member, they are undoubtedly Bateman’s babies. They deal, as always, with America, but on a generally more personal level than before. Frog songs have always been menaced by small-town boredom and big-city angst, sometimes – somehow – simultaneously, and here they examine those anxieties and neuroses in more detail than ever. Hartsdale Hotbox lifts the lid on all kinds of grubby NYC social mores, and does so with the kind of twinkling, easy on the ear chorus that Bateman can bless a song with from nowhere.

He also does a good line in character studies – witness the subject of RIP To The Empire State Flea Market, a song in which longing and depression continue their eternal dance – while Black Friday, with its simple, catchy piano motif, introduces the bummed-out, drink-fueled backdrop that gave many early Frog songs their characteristic miasma of nostalgic failure. This may make Bateman’s songwriting sound vague and unfocused, but the opposite is true: the immediacy of these songs is partly down to their specificity. On any of the first three tracks, with the aid of Google Street View, you can be there in the exact spot mentioned in the lyrics. It’s a whistle-stop tour of New York’s less glamorous corners. This constant naming of places helps to alchemise the mundane into something strangely poetic.

From the jangling, slightly dreamy Americana of Borned King to the gently autumnal Touch, Count Bateman’s musical palette is just as important as the lyrics when it comes to setting a scene. The broad sweep of It’s Something I Do in particular shows off an uncanny knack for controlling emotion in a song using seemingly simple raw materials, while the fraught sexual energy of Taste’s lyrics are perfectly matched by the uptight guitar that dissolves slowly as the song’s chorus spreads like oil.

Perhaps this excellent album’s most impressive moment is hidden away on You Know I’m Down, a short and bittersweet love song that soars and grovels in equal measure. Bateman’s writing is at its finest:

Listen to the Apples In Stereo,
Rocking Pete and Paul and Mary-o
Trouble and toil, bubblin’ oil
Grab some potatoes and bring ’em to boil.

Again, it’s the mundane elevated to something special, a celebration of objects and routine events that help define the sadness and euphoria of relationships. The album’s closing track, Miracle, is the literal and logical conclusion of this technique. It creates a kind of vernacular poetry that lifts the subject beyond its surroundings, sets it against its background in unusual, bright and often surreal colours.

For all their grounding in twenty-first century city life, Frog songs are like old boxes found in an antique shop. You always get the feeling that when you open them up you will find something valuable and slightly mysterious inside – faded photographs, a peridot brooch, or just the lavender scent of the past. And, to quote Bateman, that’s what you call a miracle.

Count Bateman is out on 16th August. You can buy it here. 

 

Album review: Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

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The decision to return to the recording studio can’t have been one that David Berman took lightly. When he officially disbanded the much-loved Silver Jews there was an air of finality about the parting statement that was due in part to Berman’s strange personal circumstances: he revealed that his father was the lobbyist, legal adviser and doyen of neoliberalism Richard Berman. Berman Senior, his son claimed, was ‘a world historical motherfucking son of a bitch,’ personally responsible for much of what is wrong with America today, and the sins of the father were simply too monumental to be offset by the songs of the son. Berman retreated from the public eye, occasionally writing obscure and impassioned blog posts about the state of his country, but giving no impression that he was continuing to write songs.

In the absence of any new material, and in the light of Berman’s comments about his father, Silver Jews songs became ripe for reinterpretation. Already multi-layered and often astonishing in their poetic detail, some of them began to take on the form of one-sided psychoanalytic conversations, with listeners taking on the role of shrink. The most avid of Silver Jews fans became Freudian or Jungian dream interpreters. The songs themselves often contained the imagery of psychoanalysis. A verse in ‘Buckingham Rabbit’ from American Water runs: ‘At the back of the bar there’s a couch where the lonely people go and lie/they talk to the honkey tonk psychiatrist into the wee hours of the night,’ and Berman, the barroom shrink, became the patient. The songs grew independently in the wild, like snakes.

Of course, Berman’s relationship with his father was more ambiguous than his parting shot implied – at one point, for example, the father paid for the son’s rehabilitation after a long period of severe substance abuse – but effectively their story is one of estrangement, or partial estrangement. And it is another estrangement that has provided the catalyst for Berman’s return. Because The Purple Mountains – the name of Berman’s new group and the name of its first record – is a breakup album. He has spoken candidly in interviews about the state of his relationship with his wife and former bandmate Cassie: the two live apart, and despite still sharing a bank account are effectively no longer a couple. Never one to shy away from documenting his own depression, Berman has created an album that confronts what it means for a middle-aged man to be newly single and not too happy about it.

Silver Jews records always started with a bang. Perhaps the most famous Berman lyric is the opening line of ‘Random Rules’, the first track on 1998’s American Water: ‘In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection.’ It is memorable because it is ballsy and bullish and funny, and because it is so obviously troubled. A feature of many of the best Silver Jews songs was their ability to get into your head with playful humour or a wordy kind of confidence and then, when they seemed to have taken up permanent residence, to mutate into something strange and worrisome. Weird parasitic insects controlling the brain. Double meanings abound, and not just double meanings. You could spend hours unpicking the layers of a Berman song and still feel like you are missing something.

Another Silver Jews opening line might provide an insight into the new Purple Mountains songs, and then again it might not. ‘No I don’t really want to die, I only want to die in your eyes,’ sings Berman in ‘How To Rent A Room’, which appears at the front end of the 1996 masterpiece The Natural Bridge. You could read this as a bitterly elliptical breakup song with Berman playing the part of the jilted lover dropping coded insults at the door of his ex: ‘You’re a tower without the bells, you’re a negative wishing well.’ But Berman’s diatribe against his father, more than a decade later, has cast a whole new light on the song. The clues are there, and hindsight makes detectives of us all. Note the reference to dubious parenthood: ‘I should have checked the stable door for the name of the sire and dam’. Note the narrator’s disgust at privilege: ‘Have you even ever rented a room?’ Note the use of the word ‘evil’, which is reflected in the language Berman uses in his later statement. It’s hard not to see the song as a cryptic precursor to those more directly formulated ideas. Even that bleak, bruising first line contains in it the wish to be both recognised by and completely distanced from – whom? – a father, perhaps.

But what does any of this have to do with the new album? Well, in Berman’s lyrical world everything is doubled. Everything is mirrored. Here is the opening verse of the first Purple Mountains song:

Well I don’t like talking to myself
But someone’s got to say it, hell
I mean things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself.

On paper, this acts as a fairly simple introduction to what is to come. We are dropped headfirst into the narrator’s lonely, self-absorbed, painful world, and we know it’s unlikely to get any easier – for us or for him. But listen again to the first few seconds. In particular the first three words of the album. Two of those three words are the same as the opening line of The Natural Bridge. And listen to the intonation in both of the songs, the resignation in Berman’s voice. The mirroring effect is uncanny. These mirrors, often slightly skewed, distorted and disquieting, are a feature of the Silver Jews’ lyrical output. The Natural Bridge is full – I mean absolutely bursting – with examples. And at times Purple Mountains – an album that ostensibly represents a clean break from the Silver Jews days – is like a warped mirror held up to that entire, brilliant body of work. 

And look at the rhyme scheme in that first song. Instead of going with something familiar – ABAB, say, or AABB – Berman employs an almost brutalist AAAA format, effectively doubling down on the rhymes. This technique occurs throughout the album, most notably on ‘Margaritas At The Mall’, where each of the four increasingly desperate lines of the pre-chorus ends in the word ‘God’. For Berman, songwriting has always been, amongst other things, a kind of conjurer’s trick. His songs are twisted halls of mirrors, windows on the infinite.

That opening track, ‘That’s Just The Way I Feel’, introduces what is to be the album’s MO: pitch-black humour and morbid self-examination concealed by disconcertingly optimistic country-rock tunes. The word-play, as you would expect from rock music’s finest poet, is consistently astonishing, even when it is seemingly simple. He bemoans the fact that when he happens to meet his ex-lover in the park, they ‘stand the standard distance distant strangers stand apart.’ Aside from its obvious cleverness, this line marks the first instance in the album of the word ‘strange’ and its derivatives. It’s always been one of Berman’s favourite words; here it becomes the focus.

‘Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go,’ he sings early on in the second song, ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’. Here, the chorus is pure, distilled Berman: the essence of depression delivered over a jaunty, radio friendly melody. He has always worked on many levels, lyrically speaking, and now he is existing on a different level too: ‘Way deep down, some substratum.’ His use of the ‘sub’ prefix has echoes of Natural Bridge track ‘The Frontier Index’, where he sings ‘Now that I’m older, subspace is colder,’ a line that could easily have come from this album. And the old preoccupation with doubling is here too. ‘Double darkness falling fast.’ Not just any old darkness for Dave. Make his a double every time.  

In interviews Berman has stated that his favourite song from the new clutch is ‘Darkness And Cold’. Given that it is the most direct and autobiographical song about his current relationship status, it is tempting to see that as an act of brutal self flagellation. But in truth it is a frankly great song. You’d be inclined to call it bittersweet, but that word implies a kind of fifty-fifty split between bitter and sweet, and in this case Berman favours one half of the equation over the other. I’ll let you guess which. Here the grand dichotomies are focused into a poetry of the banal: his lover’s ‘pink champagne Corvette’ versus the ‘band-aid pink Chevette’ where he sleeps provides one of the album’s enduring images.

I’ve referred to Purple Mountains as a breakup album, but there is more to it than that. What constitutes a breakup album anyway? Do all the songs have to be explicitly about a parting of ways? More than fifty per cent? Does it have to be about one breakup, or can it be about many? Five, maybe six of Purple Mountains’ ten songs are unequivocally about the end of Berman’s relationship with Cassie or the depressive fallout from that event, including the first three. The theme creates the mood, but allows space for other subjects to be explored. And of course this is an album by someone who has plenty of things to say – about the state of the world, the state of his home country, about family and about death – and the voice to say them well and interestingly. No single concept can contain all of what the author is trying to express here, so it’s probably best not to try to enforce one post hoc.

One of the most difficult songs to categorise is ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’. Berman took inspiration from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and its groundbreaking philosophical examinations of architecture and its relationship with people. Architecture – whether buildings, blueprints or bridges – has always been part of Berman’s own poetic space, but here the examination is steadier, more rigorous, more beautiful. The song constructs a version of Bachelard’s dream house and invites the listener in. The band slows the pace right down. There is a slow shuffle of percussion, a musty horn section. Shades of Bill Callahan, Tindersticks and even Calexico. Berman inhabits characters that are, on the face of it, far removed from the autobiographical sketches he has painted up until this point. And he plays around with perspective and point of view in a similar way to Bob Dylan on that truly great breakup album, Blood On The Tracks. The people in this song are mysterious. There is a good caretaker (and the way he sings ‘good caretaker seems to imply that there is also a bad caretaker out there somewhere, a Lynchian double). There is an unnamed friend. There are random acts of kindness. It seems like a world Berman wants to inhabit, a world on the other side of the mirror.

Worlds that exist out of time and space were a commonplace in Silver Jews songs. Here, on an album full of uncryptic honesty, they are rarer. But they still crop up from time to time, most notably on ‘Margaritas At The Mall’. The Mall in question seems to be a kind of purgatory, or perhaps an aftermath of sorts: a world that could be post-apocalyptic or just post-love, where a happy hour that is anything but happy has ‘got us by the balls.’ It could also be the album’s only overt political statement. Is it too much to suggest that the song’s ‘subtle god’ is a super-ironic Trump? ‘What I’d give for an hour with the power on the throne,’ narrates Berman, and in light of a decade spent attempting to right the political wrongs of his father it seems likely that the power he is talking about is the current leader of the free world.

Another facet of Purple Mountains that crystallises in ‘Margaritas At The Mall’ is the use of colour, and in particular unnatural or hyper-vivid colour, to create an atmosphere of unease. This is one of the sources of Berman’s characteristic strangeness in an album that tends to avoid the verbal surreality that courses through his earlier work. A hallucinatory palette is itemised: ‘Magenta, orange, acid green, peacock blue and burgundy’: new primary colours for a bizarre alternative world. Disconcerting colours that, like the ‘band-aid pink’ of the narrator’s Chevette conjure up illness and an estrangement from nature. Even the colour in the band name and album title has a deeper meaning. Berman chose Purple Mountains to reflect a commonly misheard line from ‘America the Beautiful’. Once again, a twisted, off-centre reflection.

Side two begins with – you might have guessed it – a song about strangers and strangeness. ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’, like many of the songs here, bounces along with a perky but rough-edged country and western lilt. It comes as no surprise to learn that the musicians behind this consistently shambling aesthetic are psych-folk/Americana stalwarts Woods. Berman only settled on Woods after sessions with Dan Bejar of Destroyer failed to live up to his hopes, Flirtations with everyone from the Pastels to Dan Auerbach via J Mascis were mooted, but never materialised. Purple Mountains could have sounded very different (and in the multiple universes that exist in Berman’s songs there are likely multiple Purple Mountains fulfilling subtly different purposes) but it is hard to imagine that it could have sounded much better. 

Berman and his new collaborators know exactly when to go full throttle and when to strip things back to their barest elements. ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’ is characterised by the simplest and steadiest of melodies and a soft, reverential strum of acoustic guitar. On an album where none of the songs seem to be directly about Berman’s father, there is always the temptation to interpret the absence as a statement in itself. In such a reading, a song in praise of the mother might be seen as an attack on the father. But this is clearly not the case: What we have here is a loving elegy, pure and simple, or as pure and as simple as anything can be in Berman’s world. When an artist’s back catalogue is as complex and poetically coherent as Berman’s we can be forgiven for trying to decode every word in terms of the wider web of meaning he has created. In this song, for example, he sings: ‘When I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb I loved her to the maximum,’ and it for some listeners it will recall the line ‘I always loved you to the max,’ from ‘Punks In The Beerlight’. Only this time it’s about Berman’s mother, whereas that song was presumably about Cassie. If this is the first real sign that Berman has considered moving on, it is an oblique one. And if you want to do an even closer reading of the link between those two lines: how do you get from ‘max’ to ‘maximum’? You add ‘I’ and ‘mum’. Is this Berman moving away from Cassie and coming back to himself, and to the memory of his family?

Any hope of inner peace seems to have dissipated by the next song. ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’ is essentially the evil twin of the Moody Blues’ ‘Nights In White Satin’, only the subject here is suicide rather than shagging. The band once again show their chops, creating a backcloth that is dreamlike and sedated while Berman sings that ‘the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.’ Given his history of depression and substance abuse it might be cause for worry, but as in the previous song the mood here is elegiac and reflective, a reverie that – dare we say it – allows room for a better future.

And that hint of uplift carries through into the final pair of songs, ‘Storyline Fever’ and ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’. There are jokes littered throughout the album – stick a pin in the lyric sheet and you’ll likely hit a one-liner that is either hilarious or heartbreaking, or both – and towards the end the humour comes thick and fast. Part of the legacy of country and western music is how it has legitimised self-mockery, even self-parody, and Berman has taken this to a new level. He scrutinises himself in mirror bent out of shape by life’s knocks. ‘I wish they didn’t set mirrors behind the bar, because I can’t stand to look at my face when I don’t know where you are,’ he sings in ‘Inside The Golden Days Of Missing You’, from The Natural Bridge, while ‘The Frontier Index’, from the same album, incorporates not one but two complete long-form jokes into its lyrics. 

The mask of humour, particularly Berman’s self-deprecating brand of humour, is commonly used by extremely intelligent people who lack self-confidence or are of a depressive nature. If ‘Storyline Fever’ sees him tilting at the internet echo-chamber approach to forming a set of moral values, ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’ is more personal, simultaneously skewering the incel culture (if it can be called a culture) while admitting that he is not so far away from it himself.       

It’s impossible to be fooled by this album’s apparent flippancy though, and its creator doesn’t want you to be. He is simply showing you a world in which jokes, cleverness, and a love of language can all coexist with an utter and numbing desperation. This kind of honesty is rare in music. But Berman has nothing to lose: he makes it perfectly clear that at some point in the not-too-distant past his life reached something that could be described as rock bottom. He appears, tentatively, to be moving away from that period, but he knows that it’s possible to be back there again. In The Purple Mountains he has created a document of personal suffering and redemption, an architectural framework that supports an intricate and far-reaching examination of what it means to be a human and in pain. Berman is well and truly back, and he has brought with him, from the brink, a strange and vivid masterpiece.

 

New Song Alert: Purple Mountains – All My Happiness is Gone

Silver Jews frontman David Berman has been away for a bunch of time. At his peak he was the best songwriter in America. The Silver Jews are no more. In fact, Berman retired from music completely in 2009. 

But what does completely even mean?

A song enters on wobbly legs, gazes around at the moon and begins howling into the night. Then Berman is back. The voice is the same. He’s still a master of the bitter bon mot, the filthy-bright phrases that seem to have been plucked directly from Satan’s greeting cards. ‘Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go.’ And the dark surprise of imagery – ‘the icy bike-chain rain of Portland, Oregon’ – is all present and correct too, as is the penchant for disturbing and vaguely hallucinatory poetry that seems to link the disturbed human human psyche to a wider sense of apocalypse.  

It all bodes very well indeed for the forthcoming album.

Fiction review: Rodrigo Fuentes – Trout, Belly Up

FuentesGuatemala’s thirty-six year civil war ended in 1996. Since then, under the eyes of UN representatives, millions of documents have been recovered detailing countless acts of genocide perpetrated by the US-backed military government. The same government, with the aid of soldiers trained by the CIA, still holds power today. The current head of state, ultra-conservative former actor Jimmy Morales, swept to power in 2016 with the campaign slogan ‘neither corrupt, nor a thief’, though subsequent scandals have rendered this claim somewhat fanciful. Illegal acquisition of land by palm oil and sugarcane companies is still a major problem, indigenous populations are often the first to suffer and rural poverty is high. As a result migration to the United States remains substantial, though much of it is undocumented.

It is a similar story throughout much of Latin America, and it goes some way towards explaining why the continent’s literature in the last few decades – from Roberto Bolaño to Valeria Luiselli to Julián Fuks – has often been concerned with displacement, disappearance, deracination. In Trout, Belly Up, Guatemalan author Rodrigo Fuentes offers a different view: the view of those who choose to remain. In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism.

These are tough stories. Where they differ from those of, say, Hemingway, is that the toughness is born out of necessity. The possibility of death lurks at every turn, be it death by violence, poverty or self destructive behaviour, and Fuentes’ protagonists are by turns heroic, stoic and sometimes complicit. Real people in tough situations. In that respect they perhaps owe something to Juan Rulfo’s short fiction. The occasional moments of hallucinatory clarity that ostensibly hark back to the magic realist tradition are better understood as acute, hyper-distilled observations of otherwise quotidian events – in other words, the seemingly random barrage of crises that taken together bestow individuality on a human life.

This mesh of strange beauty, boredom and violence is best exemplified in the story ‘Out Of The Blue, Perla’, in which the aforementioned pet cow becomes a sugarcane farmer’s ally in a vain resistance against an illegal land grab. The cow, Perla, takes on more human (and even divine) characteristics as the story progresses – she ‘dances’ on two legs, her gaze is knowing and coquettish, she shines ‘like a saint at Easter.’ As Perla grows more civilised and anthropomorphised, the criminals become increasingly bestial, finally committing an act of such transgressive barbarity that they effectively swap places with Perla in a kind of double-edged moral transmutation.

Another story, ‘Whisky’, concerns a recovering alcoholic, his young daughter, and the pet dog that brings them closer together. When the dog goes missing we watch through our fingers as the narrator’s life quickly begins to unravel. It is a simple premise but it is handled so assuredly by Fuentes that we remain gripped and moved up to and beyond its last sentence. It ends with an ironic, downbeat subversion of the classic Hollywood cliffhanger. The narrator slides down a sewage-filled ravine to rescue the trapped dog as his daughter waits at the top. The final sentence leaves no doubt that there is more at stake than the safety of the dog: ‘He held a hand out in front of him and waited, his heart in his mouth, terrified and full of hope for their reunion.’

With its suburban setting and self-contained narrative, ‘Whisky’ is ostensibly the odd one out. But the simultaneous terror and hope it conjures up provides an undercurrent that runs through the entire book. Whisky’s central character is the charismatic but self-destructive Mati, who also takes the starring role in ‘Dive’. A drug-fuelled diving expedition ends in near-tragedy and Mati ends the story on a plane to Miami, on the verge of death due to acute decompression sickness. For many writers a scene like this would form the centrepiece of the story, but once again Fuentes leaves us to imagine the outcome, or rather to contemplate the constant presence of horror that exists alongside the possibility of redemption.

The comparisons with Hemingway are partly down to this fine balance between redemption and existential oblivion, and partly down to the consistency and clarity of Fuentes’ artistic vision. He holds up a mirror to a masculine world – at times toxically masculine – but one in which individual women (lovers, daughters) hold immense, almost supernatural power. Sometimes they are analogues of the Virgin Mary, at others they hint at pre-Columbian deities. Mystery, fertility and carnality are scrambled together in the female characters, reflecting a world that is at once Catholic, pagan and secular. To the male gaze this mixture is confusing and intriguing. Fuentes writes about this confusion with subtle sensitivity. The protagonist in the title story is embroiled in an extramarital affair, and as the fish in his trout farm begin to die he lays the blame, if only for an instant, at the feet of his lover. He calls her a witch. She places her hands on her belly in a way that seems significant, loaded with meaning, but which he cannot understand. But ultimately he realises that he is at fault – for the death of the trout, for the wreck of his marriage – and his one wish is ‘for everything to go back to how it was before’.

Many of the stories are linked, and the device that links them is the character of Don Henrik. At times he his close – some of the stories are narrated by his step-son – and at others he is a distant, ultimately benign presence, like a moon pulling the narrative tides back and forth. Don Henrik is full of contradictions. More than any other character he appears at one with the Guatemalan landscape, a kind of patriarch and guardian, but in reality he is an interloper, a well-travelled Norwegian whose gifts to his new country include Scandinavian fish-farming techniques, smørbrød and plastic trolls.

Henrik is, among other things, a master of the art of waiting. The stories are little moments of digression and difference that occur around long periods of waiting. ‘My mother would be at home, awaiting Henrik’s return, and we’d be in a bar, awaiting God knows what,’ observes the young narrator in ‘Henrik’, the collection’s final, crushing story. These are people grown accustomed to enduring periods of time in which nothing seems to happen. They even find some satisfaction in it. That is understandable when the alternative is violent conflict. But even nothing can be frightening, and is always full of infinite possibilities. Fuentes has a rare gift for presenting those possibilities in way that is intensely revealing without being analytical.

Fuentes is rightly lauded in the Spanish-speaking literary world. He was a finalist in last year’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez Prize and has been an award-winning short story writer for more than a decade. This is his first collection in English, and huge credit must be given to Edinburgh-based Charco Press, whose mission to publish the best in new Latin American fiction has already introduced to us the talents of Luis Sagasti, Ariana Harwicz and Daniel Mella, among others. They have yet to publish a book that isn’t worth reading. Credit must also go to translator Ellen Jones – the sparse and unsentimental prose, with its occasional forays into passionate earthiness, seems to reflect perfectly the difficult political and geographical landscape from which these hugely impressive stories have grown.