BEST OF 2013: 22. Midlake – Antiphon

It was mere months before the arrival of ‘Antiphon’ that news broke about singer and main songwriter Tim Smith having left Midlake some time previous. I’d been badgering Bella Union’s rather lovely PR about this release, having obsessed over 2010’s The Courage Of Others’. I was advised that something special was on the way, but had no idea about the personnel change. Shortly after the news came the first play of the album’s title track and it seemed that everything was going to be ok. Where many had bemoaned the slower, single-paced aspects of that last album, I had connected with its wallowing, melancholic landscape and was rather keen for more. Not that that ever really works. Nobody actually wants their favourite bands to keep releasing the same album over and over again. Although such thoughts very nearly wrecked ‘Antiphon’ for me.

Initial listens were pleasing but not revelatory, and it is easy enough to get gently swept along with the chiming riffs, layered harmonies and lolloping drums. There’s a slightly rockier heft poking through here, but it’s not their ‘XTRMNTR’. Instead, the band appear to have regrouped after the creative impasse that led to Smith’s departure by trusting their instincts and letting the songs take their own paths. As a result, there are some rather less conventional tracks, including instrumental storm ‘Vale’ and the world-weary strung out closer ‘Provider Reprise’. The track being reprised is a fine burst of the soft-rock folksy warmth for which they became loved, but it is surpassed by the shimmering, punchy ‘The Old And The Young’, with one of those chorus that explodes out of the proceeding verse like Mentos in a bottle of coke.

I suspect a fondness for their work to date makes it easier to dig below the surface of ‘Antiphon’. It’s not a record that screams to be heard, but it is a remarkable attempt to salvage a stalemate. Written and recorded in six months after several years of increasingly resolute artistic deadlock, it benefits from a lack of fussing.  They’re still Midlake and it very much sounds like a Midlake album. Maybe not ‘The Courage Of Others’ so much as ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’, but even then this is a heavier incarnation with the shroud lifted and the riffs pointed to the heavens.

1. John Grant–Queen Of Denmark

Best of 2010At the start of the year, the big story about ‘Queen Of Denmark’ was that Midlake were the backing band. By December, the fuss is all about the remarkable voice, presence and charisma of John Grant. Battered, bruised, disaffected and dissatisfied after years as the frontman of one of rock’s great secret pleasures, The Czars, Grant had retreated from the world of music to wait tables and make use of some of the many languages in which he is well versed.

jg10

Queen Of Denmark’, the slow-burning masterpiece of 2010, is the result of Denton, Texas’ finest coercing Grant back into the studio. When asked to review this album in the early months of the year, I gave it a solid seven. By the time it was released, and I was revisiting my text for publication here, I commented that it should have been an eight. If your experience begins in a similar vein, stick with it because it is now, unquestionably, a ten.

Musically, it is a triumph, exuding an early Seventies style warmth which curls out of the speakers rather than ambushing you with any unnecessary punch. The slinky unravelling of opening track ‘TC And Honeybear’ gives a pretty clear indication of the musical terrain which lies ahead, ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ a sweeping mid-paced delight from start to finish. I originally described ‘Chicken Bones’ as like the Scissor Sisters at half-speed and I’m not trying to distance myself from that remark just now, although it is considerably better than anything said band have released to date. The lyric, “I got out of my bed this morning and I noticed that it didn’t have a right side,” is one of many, many brilliant lines on this remarkable album because it is one of those rare triumphs: a musical delight matched by exquisitely great lyrics. Obviously, I don’t own any copyright or the like on this, but I reproduce below the entire lyric from the album’s title and closing track, ‘Queen Of Denmark’. While Lucky Soul may have claimed the line of the year previously, the complete lyric of 2010 has to be this deliciously vitriolic expulsion:

I wanted to change the world,
but I could not even change my underwear.
And when the shit got really, really out of hand,
I had it all the way up to my hairline
which keeps receding like my self-confidence,
as if I ever had any of that stuff anyway.
I hope I didn’t destroy your celebration
or your Bar Mitzvah, birthday party or your Christmas.
You put me in this cage and threw away the key.
It was this ‘us and them’ shit that did me in.
You tell me that my life is based upon a lie;
I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee.
I hope you know that all I want from you is sex,
to be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear,
and if your haircut isn’t right you’ll be dismissed.
Get your walking papers and you can leave now.

Don’t know what to want from this world,
I really don’t know what to want from this world.
I don’t know what it is you want to want from me,
you really have no right to want anything from me at all.
Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?
Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?
Why don’t you tell somebody else that they’re selfish?
Weepy coward and pathetic…

Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You’d better bring a stun gun and perhaps a crowbar,
you’d better pack a lunch and get up really early
and you should probably get down on your knees and pray.
It’s really fun to look embarrassed all the time
like you could never cut the mustard with the big boys.
I really don’t know who the fuck you think you are;
can I please see your license and your registration?

So Jesus hasn’t come in here to pick you up.
You’ll still be sitting right here ten years from now.
You’re just a sucker but we’ll see who gets the last laugh –
who knows, maybe you’ll get to be the next Queen of Denmark.

And breathe. Staggering stuff, and ten times as good when you hear him actually singing it. The moment when the track explodes, as he cries out “Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?” is utterly perfect, the demented thrust mirroring perfectly the emotions at the heart of the song. There are many moments on the album where Grant settles prior scores and offers a quite mesmerisingly honest insight into his life, but this is its zenith.

At the risk of making every other post in this list about the Green Man Festival, watching Grant perform on a drizzly Friday night was one of those moments that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. A small band of those in the know had assembled, safe in the knowledge that a real treat was forthcoming, and the crowd grew considerably as his spellbinding baritone rose over the soggy fields and seduced the damp from all directions. Recent interviews have found Grant expressing genuine surprise at the reception to ‘Queen Of Denmark’ and it was clear that night that these songs continue to hold the baggage so openly displayed in their words. An a cappella version of ‘Chicken Bones’, as his stripped down stage setup didn’t allow for a full performance, lingers long in the mind and it served to highlight the staggering depth of a truly amazing voice.

Bella Union released an almost suspicious number of brilliant records in 2010, but none were more special than this unique burst of a man laying bare his emotional no man’s land. There is a remarkable double vinyl version available which is as good a pressing as any I own and which is the ultimate way to hear this sensational album. Hyperbole be damned, this is an absolute masterpiece.

4. Midlake–The Courage Of Others

Best of 2010Whereas ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ knocked you back with a couple of killer tracks and let the rest of the record wash over you, gradually becoming endearingly familiar, ‘The Courage Of Others’ is a record which refuses to offer cheap thrills or quick hits. This is a record for the listener and the more listening you do, the more it reveals. I didn’t expect to be quite so taken with ‘The Courage Of Others’, but the mixed reviews had intrigued me, the last record had gently entertained me and there was a vinyl pressing available. It was always going to happen!

Midlake-The_Courage_of_Others

What wasn’t always going to happen was my subsequent gradual, helpless, fall under its spell. For a start, it’s a lovely, warm-sounding vinyl pressing so it got a second play soon after its first, enough to suggest that there were some lovely textures in these eleven songs. But, when I found myself making a fairly sombre, chilly train journey, not to mention the accompanying, even more sombre and even more chilly walk home, ‘The Courage Of Others’ provided the ideal soundtrack. The album seemed perfect for those forty five minutes and I’m starting to think that that’s exactly what this record is. Perfect. The quite magically understated vocals from Tim Smith convey the sense of a songwriter utterly embedded within his own music. I can understand why some feel that this represents a slight dip from ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ and that things aren’t as lively as they should be, but it certainly isn’t how I feel about this absolutely spellbinding collection. I’m a sucker for voices that become part of the music itself – Jimi from Doves, Joni Mitchell, Thom Yorke – and this is why the more subdued delivery by Smith on ‘The Courage Of Others’ is very much to my liking. The bafflingly sniffy Pitchfork review actually suggested that Smith sounds uninterested in his own songs and detached, “delivering every line with the kind of passion you might reserve for courtesy calls.” I really, truly don’t hear this. To me, it suggests a singer positioned at the core of his music, working with the music rather than riding over the top it. It feels highly personal and as such showmanship is kept to a bare minimum. I honestly never got the sense that he was in anyway detached or disinterested.

The warning tone of the flute motif on ‘Rules, Ruling All Things’ is one of those relatively minor, subtle affectations that are all over most decent records, but it’s one that stood out to my ears and, as such, has becomes one of the focal points of this record. The power of such tiny moments captures the spirit of ‘The Courage Of Others’. This is, perhaps thankfully, not an album with such a distinctive aural signature like ‘Roscoe’. Despite listening to this album a lot this week,  I don’t find myself wandering around whistling or humming various songs from it. Having said that, there are now a good half a dozen or so little moments like that unsettling flute that act as anchors for this record, completely transfixing me each time they pass my ears.

Words like ‘pastoral’ get bandied around for music like this without further explanation, and ‘The Courage Of Others’ seems, more precisely, to be about the importance of nature. There’s a strong feeling of the emotional turmoil and sapping of the spirit sometimes evoked by the winter months. Attempting to engage with such heavy blankets of melancholy, hoping to stave off their often disturbingly consuming weight, is no mean feat and I feel like this album speaks from such experiences. “I will train my feet to go on with a joy, a joy I have yet to reach,” Smith intones on ‘Core Of Nature’ and irrespective of whether that’s what he meant at the time, it captures perfectly for me that hopeful belief that you can walk yourself out of the gloom, even if you’ve never quite managed it yet. The very fact that there’s plenty of things out there to tempt you into action, to spur you into movement, if you’re willing to do so, further reinforces that awkward no man’s land where you know what you should do but still that doesn’t do a thing to abate the feelings that stop you in your tracks. I may have misinterpreted that line, the whole song, the whole album, but whichever way you come at it, I still believe there’s an emotionally articulate core to this record which is at risk of being ignored due to the minor key music by which some seem unengaged.

The Courage Of Others’ is littered with lyrics open to interpretation but this is an album about the human condition and how nature accompanies, embellishes and shapes our responses to life. The music is complex yet unassuming. It doesn’t do bells and whistles, it just trusts you to come and find its glories. I’m sure that for many, this will mean a couple of cursory listens before being consigned to the shelf or some untouched folder on a hard drive. More fool those people for missing out, but then I can’t deny that I quite like the idea that my absolute and unremitting love for this album makes me part of a fairly small group who will cherish this quite fantastic record for many years to come. It feels very much like it’s my record, and that only serves to reinforce that belief.

A Week With… 8. Midlake – The Courage Of Others

jp aww 08

Whereas ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ knocked you back with a couple of killer tracks and let the rest of the record wash over you, gradually becoming endearingly familiar, ‘The Courage Of Others’ is a record which refuses to offer cheap thrills or quick hits. This is a record for the listener and the more listening you do, the more it reveals. I didn’t expect to be quite so taken with ‘The Courage Of Others’, but the mixed reviews had intrigued me, the last record had gently entertained me and there was a vinyl pressing available. It was always going to happen!

Midlake-The_Courage_of_Others

What wasn’t always going to happen was my subsequent gradual, helpless, fall under its spell. For a start, it’s a lovely, warm-sounding vinyl pressing so it got a second play soon after its first, enough to suggest that there were some lovely textures in these eleven songs. But, when I found myself making a fairly sombre, chilly train journey, not to mention the accompanying, even more sombre and even more chilly walk home, ‘The Courage Of Others’ provided the perfect soundtrack. The album sounded perfect for those forty five minutes and I’m starting to think that that’s exactly what this record is. Perfect. The quite magically understated vocals from Tim Smith convey the sense of a songwriter utterly embedded within his own music. I can understand why some feel that this represents a slight dip from ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ and that things aren’t as lively as they should be, but it certainly isn’t how I feel about this absolutely spellbinding collection. I’m a sucker for voices that become part of the music itself – Jimi from Doves, Joni Mitchell, Thom Yorke – and this is why the more subdued delivery by Smith on ‘The Courage Of Others’ is very much to my liking. The bafflingly sniffy Pitchfork review actually suggested that Smith sounds uninterested in his own songs and detached, “delivering every line with the kind of passion you might reserve for courtesy calls.” I really, truly don’t hear this. To me, it suggests a singer positioned at the core of his music, working with the music rather than riding over the top it. It feels highly personal and as such showmanship is kept to a bare minimum. I honestly never got the sense that he was in anyway detached or disinterested.

The warning tone of the flute motif on ‘Rules, Ruling All Things’ is one of those relatively minor, subtle affectations that are all over most decent records, but it’s one that stood out to my ears and, as such, has becomes one of the focal points of this record. The power of such tiny moments captures the spirit of ‘The Courage Of Others’. This is, perhaps thankfully, not an album with such a distinctive aural signature like ‘Roscoe’. Despite listening to this album a lot this week,  I don’t find myself wandering around whistling or humming various songs from it. Having said that, there are now a good half a dozen or so little moments like that unsettling flute that act as anchors for this record, completely transfixing me each time they pass my ears.

Words like ‘pastoral’ get bandied around for music like this without further explanation, and ‘The Courage Of Others’ seems, more precisely, to be about the importance of nature. There’s a strong feeling of the emotional turmoil and sapping of the spirit sometimes evoked by the winter months. Attempting to engage with such heavy blankets of melancholy, hoping to stave off their often disturbingly consuming weight, is no mean feat and I feel like this album speaks from such experiences. “I will train my feet to go on with a joy, a joy I have yet to reach,” Smith intones on ‘Core Of Nature’ and irrespective of whether that’s what he meant at the time, it captures perfectly for me that hopeful belief that you can walk yourself out of the gloom, even if you’ve never quite managed it yet. The very fact that there’s plenty of things out there to tempt you into action, to spur you into movement, if you’re willing to do so, further reinforces that awkward no man’s land where you know what you should do but still that doesn’t do a thing to abate the feelings that stop you in your tracks. I may have misinterpreted that line, the whole song, the whole album, but whichever way you come at it, I still believe there’s an emotionally articulate core to this record which is at risk of being ignored due to the minor key music by which some seem unengaged.

The Courage Of Others’ is littered with lyrics open to interpretation but this is an album about the human condition and how nature accompanies, embellishes and shapes our responses to life. The music is complex yet unassuming. It doesn’t do bells and whistles, it just trusts you to come and find its glories. I’m sure that for many, this will mean a couple of cursory listens before being consigned to the shelf or some untouched folder on a hard drive. More fool those people for missing out, but then I can’t deny that I quite like the idea that my absolute and unremitting love for this album makes me part of a fairly small group who will cherish this quite fantastic record for many years to come. It already feels very much like it’s my record, and that only serves to reinforce that belief.

***

You can read another thoughtful piece on this remarkable album over on a new music blog, ‘Signals’, which is the brainchild of former teatunes-er, Dan. Click here to have a read.

2010 on the record