These New Puritans - Field of Reeds
Posted on Sunday, 16 June 2013 | No Comments
A small room in a block of flats, located within an unidentified European city. Light and spacious to the point where it is almost blank space.
(V.O.) JAZZ SINGER
You see this guy? This guy's in love with you
Yes I'm in love - who looks at you the way I do?
When you smile, I can tell we know each other very well.
How can I show you I'm glad I got to know you, 'cause...
The song continues in the background, muffled as if heard through the walls from a room along the corridor.
The sound of PIANO CHORDS and AN ORCHESTRA TUNING can be heard alongside the singing, again coming from a location just outside the P.O.V.
It's true that describing music as cinematic has become a cliched, knee-jerk response to any pop sound that places a premium on mood and atmosphere above any more direct message, to suggest that just because a song does not immediately reveal all its secrets to us, it can only be part of a puzzle as with a film soundtrack (the inference perhaps being that, on some level, this music has failed to fulfill all our narrative expectations on its own and requires a greater leap of imagination on the part of the listener than is desired).
When confronted with the epic scope and sound of These New Puritans' third album Field of Reeds however, it's almost impossible to avoid such metaphors, just so as to provide a starting point to describe the ambiguity and heft of the product that has now been stamped onto plastic and wax. It's an album that operates without any concern or acknowledgement for current trends or fashions, nor for generic convention or audience expectation. It's an album also whose success in expanding once more the scope and possibilities of These New Puritans as a project marks them out as one of the most astonishing and brilliant prospects in British music today.
The faux-script excerpt provided above is a description of the sound and feeling of album opener This Guy's In Love With You. Drawing on the Hal David and Burt Bacharach standard, These New Puritans provide a vision very different from the casual sophistication of Herb Alpert's famous rendition. Using the original more as a starting point than as a definitive road map, the vocal is delivered by Portugese jazz vocalist Elisa Rodrigues (who appears throughout the album as a warmer foil to Jack Barnett's more limited range), but caught only in blurred snatches while the piano and strings tentatively feel their way into the album's world. It's obscure and kept away from the listener, yet the feeling is far more open and welcoming than anything bearing the These New Puritans name prior.
When they first came to attention with 2008 debut album Beat Pyramid, their mixture of caustic post-punk and dance beats saw them lumped in with the abysmal new-rave movement the NME were foisting on the public at the time. But even then, the intelligence of the arrangements and the apocalyptic mood running throughout the album (as a sample lyric, consider "China, India, my own future / Scatter, scatter, scatter" from Infinity ytinifnI: bit more than Shitdisco were offering at any rate) set them far above the pack. Come follow-up album Hidden, and the decisive jump had been made, the focus now on setting booming live percussion and haunting woodwind refrains against an even darker worldview and a considerably more bold set of compositions. Even after this prodigious leap though, Field of Reeds marks an unexpected and enthralling new chapter for the group - while Hidden's Kate Bush-esque moment of respite Hologram might have hinted at a move towards a softer sound, quite how this shift has turned out is thrillingly unexpected.
Divided into three suites of three tracks each, the neo-classical ambition of the album pushes These New Puritans out of the world of the rock band entirely and into the rarified corridors inhabited by experimental post-rock pioneers Bark Psychosis (whose Graham Sutton co-produced the album) and, as pointed out by many observers, late-era Talk Talk. The latter certainly makes sense as a starting point: they were both bands who started out being lumped in as also-rans into a flavour-of-the-month scene, who divorced themselves further and further from the mainstream with each release until eventually morphing into a brand name for a wide pallete of sessionists and musicians curated and led by one auteurial mastermind - Mark Hollis in the case of Talk Talk, and Jack Barnett in the case of These New Puritans. The use of jazz and classical inspiration over traditional rock structure unites the two also, as does the beautiful and pristine studio sound overseen by both, where different elements of the mix float in and out with scrupulous attention to dynamics: just compare the stunning job done here to many recent releases, like Suede's horrifically brickwalled Bloodsports, and weep for the death of proper mastering.
The significant difference between the two artists though is that where Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock by Talk Talk were the result of months of improvisation and jamming around loose structures being edited and compiled into their final forms, Field of Reeds is a fully composed work, whose beauty and oddity derives from the preparations of Jack Barnett. As such, what emerges here is an ornate work which falls somewhere between the Radiohead of Pyramid Song and the Robert Wyatt of Rock Bottom, tapping into a whole legion of outside influences and sources but ultimately resolving itself into a uniquely hopeful and British melancholy. Certainly, the way Jack Barnett is using his voice falls into this category, using its slightly thin nature to an advantage and making audacious melodic choices on centerpiece track V (Island Song) which bring a younger Wyatt to mind. There's also tracks like the stunning Organ Eternal to consider, where a spiralling progression (with more than a hint of Tubular Bells to it) builds into jazzy cymbal splashes and finally a rising vocal part that takes it into the realm of gothic pastoral.
Despite the clear influences and artistic debts that can be traced throughout Field of Reeds though, what ultimately emerges is a hugely singular work whose carefully constructed abstraction operates unlike any other record you will hear this year. By the time of the third, percussion-less suite, These New Puritans and their studio collaborators have broken through into a space where every note seems to hang suspended in mid-air, a quiet burst of thunder admist total blankness. The title track itself drifts by on a cavernous wall of vocal drone (supplied by Adrian Peacock, supposedly the man with the lowest known singing voice in Britain), Jack Barnett murmuring "You asked if the islands would float away / I said, yes". There's a dark, inexplicable undercurrent to it, yet ultimately the album drifts off into the same peace it began with. Field of Reeds feels as much a kind of hallucination or dream as the highly considered construct that it is, and it's the way it combines this sense of the other-wordly alongside the translucent architecture of Barnett's musical framing that makes it such a remarkable listen. As an album, it sits outside anything else occuring in 2013 - as with late Scott Walker, at times it resembles a radio play (or, yes, a film soundtrack) as much as an album. It's a strange, genre-straddling exercise that finds them a million miles away from the rock quartet they started out as, but here, These New Puritans have found a new, dizzying terrain that will outlast any trends or hype bubbles around it.