The Mendips dropped their burden of gutter-thick rain like a thousand miniature storms, hurtling down Tarmac. St Andrew’s Well must have been full to overflowing. In the library, we saw the hand of a twelfth-century monk shake with some distant palsy as he gingerly wrote his name; we saw the Kufic-like scrollings of a Papal announcement; we saw early printed books, their pages left without initials so someone could add illuminations, printed seperately so their eventual owner could add a suitable binding.
Then out and up Tor Hill – yes, Wells has one of everything that Bath and Glastonbury have (indeed the streets combine crusties and posh wives as if selecting the best of both worlds) – crumbling too beneath the rain, great molten scabs of (suprisingly reddish) stone erupting from the black roots that clung around them – and by car along the Old Bristol Road, which cuts a section of High Mendip, where suddenly, briefly things are unnervingly wild, reed-fringed ponds, rough grass and emptiness, and down into the folds of land between here and the Severn, Somerset like a great God’s eye unblinking, these carboniferous triassic hills the folds of a collossal eyelid; great churches by the tear ducts; the Tor in the middle of the all-seeing Level heart land.
God, am I enjoying Noble Beast. (God, am I enjoying Noble Beast? Hmm, guess He must be busy. Or is the enjoyment of music in itself a slice of the divine, and the question itself thus tautological?).
Sorry. Back to the point. I keep coming back to this record like a pleasant itch. At first it sounded like soft country-rock, the worst kind of background music. But there’s lots in it, and moments of real strangeness, which as any fule kno is what we all have to look out for, in art as in life.
I’m with Jencks on that one. Oddity is all. Whether it be St Hugh’s Choir Lincoln, the ouvre of William Joy (the c14 West County mason, not the software programmer. Keep up!), or music.
So that’s where I’m frustrated with Noble Beast. I like it because it reminds me of the best of my brief, but vertiginous glimpse of America: he divides his time between Chicago and an Illinois farm, and from my wide ranging travels in that area – 3 days in Kalamazoo MI and 2 days getting from O’Hare to there and back again – that is where I want to spend my time, too. I like it because it is beautifully played and recorded, with the attention of the craftsman to true detail. These I think are things one starts to appreciated more as one ages and starts to realise how much there is to Doing Things Well without Sacrificing Their Essence.
The above, by the way, is an example of the Winnie-the-Pooh Capital, a writing technique unjustly neglected since the 1920s.
I like it too (keep to the point, man) because as I listen I stumble occasionally on moments of true beauty. Something like that happens at the end of Nonanimal, for example. And it’s a rare enough commodity indeed.
And I like it because he writes Complicated Lyrics, and these are one of my great delights in life.
And all this means one can spend time with it, getting to know it, exploring it, in the way best suited to that soon-to-vanish form, the album. Indeed I’ve yet to find a duff track on it, and hey, even Revolver is graced by Yellow Submarine. Or something.
And therein lie too my frustrations. I suspect Mr Bird is one of those musicians who is also good at Maths (or, where he comes from, Math). It’s all a little cerebral, and I think he knows it: when his lyrics approach emotional directness, it always seems to be to do with a search for lost immediacy (Oh No), a certain distance and unreachability-of-passion, even to himself (Effigy). The lyrics can be very clever, but this cleverness in fact veers too closely to clever-clever to break the sound barrier and become poetry: I mean, I love being able to sing ‘From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans/Greek Cypriots and harbour sops who hang around in ports a lot/uh-ah,’ and (while I’m proud such words exist within the gambit of ‘popular song’), just around the corner is poetry – but access, it seems, has been clogged by a big thick dictionary and too much time on Wiki and its paper-based ilk. By just the same token he stumbles on oddness as if by accident: in the slow-brew intro to Masterswarm, or the way Souverain becomes a slowed-down cover of itself – but it passes as soon as it is found, and before you know it everythings edged closer to the comfort zone AKA the Country Rock Horror.
These criticisms are in some ways unfair: they are strengths as well as weaknesses, part of what makes Andrew, Andrew. But if there was 5-10% more true-to-inner-oddness poetry (oh, Beefheart, Astral Weeks, Lee Perry at his best,… it’s a rare enough commodity in any creative path) this would break the glass barrier between Very Very Good and Undying Genius, between Entertainment and Art. Does the boy have it in him?
Oh! As I write, the Shuffle has just gone from a duet from the B-Minor Mass to Garageland; Bach to the Clash, the German court to Ladbroke Grove, acoustic to electric, classical to punk. And it works! Moments of Shuffle brilliance, #2356 (I haven’t got a list of the others…).
England is made for the intense dullnesses of November. Perhaps that, subliminally, is the reason for our obsession with the weather. Because we know are rare secret: that some places are at the finest when rain is coming soon, when layers of damp air occlude and reveal, when the clouds shift quickly enough to hold our collective breaths for the next instalment, but slowly enough to drink in the qualities they, and the light that falls througb by their favour, bestow.
I went the other way this morning, and found – as I should always have realised – that the Down dominates more than half the circuit, no longer behind and to the side but straight ahead. And I was treated to just such an occasion: a sudden, not-quite-complete opening of the clouds, wide enough only to side-light a small stretch of the hill, behind which the sun was low enough to throw every sheep-track and gorse-cover into incisive relief.
It seemed for a moment that the light-patch would head this way, and back light the row of small low oaks among which I stood, and throw even my face into its critical focus; but I had not reckoned the wind right: it was pushing the cloud cover, and the ever-shrinking gap, north and away, and instead I witnessed a staged layering of the land between the hill and me, and like flats beneath some mighty cloud-proscenium. It almost vanished in a dry valley, then suddenly threw itself along a great crack of beech and oak, then was lost again, then for a moment picked up chimney, gable and rookery at the village-edge, and then was gone.