Sonically cinematic and lyrically
rife with literary imagery, the English trio crafts a masterpiece.
BY JOHN DWORKIN
Britain’s Sweet Billy Pilgrim turns introspection
into universality while somehow drawing a line connecting melancholia to
rapture. The trio’s sophomore effort, Twice
Born Men (issued by David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label), has a kaleidoscopic
spectrum of associations: Shaker songs, Radiohead, poetic lyrics, experimental
electronics, and Jon Brion-esque cinematic gestures blur while essentially
remaining within standard song forms. (Did we mention it’s a killer record?)
The band: Tim Elsenburg, Anthony Bishop and Alistair Hamer.
Twice Born Men is more
like a mini opera of the imagination than a collection of pop songs. Like the
short story collections of Tim O’Brien or Mary Gaitskill, the whole equals more
than the sum of its parts. And while there is plenty of specific imagery, Elsenburg’s
writing is open (at times cryptic) enough for the listener to step into the
story and wear it like their own personal raincoat against the world. Twice
Born Men is one of those records that will likely divide its listeners into
two camps: those who shout “Beautiful! Brilliant!,” and the rest who shrug
muttering, “That’s weird. I don’t get it. It’s boring and pretentious.” And
it’s a shame for that latter crowd because Twice Born Men is a
fantastically ambitious near-masterpiece. In a world where ringtones seem to
have become the typical musical attention span, music has generally become
something to mindlessly consume and excrete rather than something to engage
with, experience and ponder. This is not the world of Twice Born Men.
The first sounds we hear are scratchy electronic blips and metallic
pulses hovering over a faint undercurrent of acoustic guitar. The general tone
of (internal) conflict is set from the start; electronic vs. acoustic being
just one of many. Enter the opening monologue – sampled dialogue of Mandy
Patinkin portraying Jim Nashe from the film The Music Of Chance: “Every
night I’d tell myself that I’d had enough; that I’d pack it in and settle down.
Every morning I’d wake up, crawl back into the car and drive. I thought why
not? Why not just keep driving?”
Road Trip! I call shotgun!
Though Sweet Billy Pilgrim is an English band, Twice Born Men has a somewhat American pulse: their band name is taken from a Kurt Vonnegut
character, lyrics explicitly refer to the U.S.
and California, the opening monologue is based
on a book from a Brooklyn, NY based author
(Paul Auster), and banjos ring through the recording.
Instrumentation is an essential element to the group’s creativity. Bass
clarinets, laptops and electronics, banjos, harmoniums, “tuned dishwasher,” and
creaking metal door hinges all add to the clatteringly kaleidoscopic and
occasionally near circus-like atmosphere; albeit a relatively dark circus. Then
at other moments we get a more traditional piano, guitar, bass and drums. But
there is almost always something else pulling underneath creating a sort of
musical surface tension. While the musicianship and playing is great, the focus
is completely on the composition. There are no ‘solo sections’ and no guitar
heroes. In “Joy Maker Machinery” there’s a short, rubato instrumental section
with harmonica, scratchy steal string slide guitar, and piano that has the
fragility of a dream upon waking, simultaneously being destroyed and re-constructed.
For sure there are many beautiful instrumental passages, but Twice Born Men is a very detailed map with lyrical, romantic melodies charting the course
(ships and sea imagery abound throughout the record). Imagine Jon Brion
collaborating with Radiohead on a film score for a melancholy, dark love story.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s music feels naturally cinematic.
The story of Twice Born Men is essentially two things: a love
story, and an exploration of conflicts between opposing forces: joy and
sadness, staying and leaving, imagination and reality. The sound of imagination
running parallel to reality is a sonic theme throughout the recording. Whether
its acoustic (human) against electronics (machine), or subliminal clatter
underneath beauty, that taut musical surface tension is often present. They may
occasionally butt heads, but imagination and reality remain essentially shadows
of one another not sharing the same body. This idea of imagination vs. reality,
or human vs. machine, recalls Bjork’s tune “Cvalda” from her Dancer In The
Dark soundtrack of Lars VonTrier’s film. In the film (and, interestingly,
in another VonTrier film Breaking The Waves), Bjork’s character Selma actually collides
with machinery producing tragic results. In Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s world these
two forces remain agonizingly unresolved in their somehow still achingly
beautiful, melancholy world.
Through Twice Born Men, imagination and reality are like the
pair of star-crossed lovers from 17th century poet Andrew Marvell’s The
Definition Of Love. In describing their love, he writes: “But ours, so
truly parallel/Though infinite, can never meet/Therefore the love which us doth
bind/But Fate so enviously debars/Is the conjunction of the mind/And opposition
of the stars.” Elsenburg’s lyrics of love are powerful and often bittersweet as
well. From “Longshore Drift” he writes: “And every earnest kiss
departing/Leaves an exit wound/But we can patch it up with dirty pictures/And
colorful balloons.” Or from “Joy Maker Machinery”: “Bones will arc and cradle
sparks/From circuits smudged in bliss/The newborn blush that makes us drunk/On
every little kiss.” And from “There Will It End” he writes, “And the planets
move as I touch your back/The stars go out as I tip my hat/Will I kiss those
hands as we fade to black/So say us – there will it end.” On this ending track,
Elsenburg overdubs his voice again and again (some 30 times!) turning this
beautiful simple melody into some kind of modern day Shaker Hymn for choir.
The other main focus in Twice Born Men’s lyrics are those
opposing forces, and ultimately life and death. In “Bloodless Coup” we get:
“You’re never going to make it right/You’re never going to feel alive/‘Til
you’re defeated and broken/You’re never going to make it up/It’s never going to
be enough/To turn it all round/We fall down again.” This can be read as
nihilistic. But it can also be seen as a selfless surrendering. These lyrics
echo Aimee Mann’s brilliant surrender “Wise Up” (“So just… give up”). And from
“Future Perfect Tense:” “Like an empty promise/A sail becomes a shroud/And the
sky is falling down.”
Sitting down to listen through the record in its entirety, it starts
out so strong that as you continue listening, out of sheer logic or habit you
anticipate the inevitable bottoming out of intensity, craft, or beauty. But it
never comes. And there will it end.
[Photo Credit: Francis
“There Will It End”: