BY JENNIFER KELLY
Britain’s Nick Talbot died a day after these recordings – Flashlight Seasons/Black Holes in the Sand/Offerings: Lost Songs 2000-2004 – were reissued, on December 2, 2014, on the Warp label. No one is saying what he died of, though he was young at 37, and, in press interviews a few weeks beforehand, he was still talking about an upcoming tour and new material. So it must have been a surprise to everyone and yet, given the melancholy tone of these songs, also not a surprise. Death always lurked in the corners of Gravenhurst’s music, hiding even in the band name and popping up at regular intervals in the spare, minor-key melodies and folk-influenced lyrics of Talbot’s songs.
Flashlight Seasons and Black Holes in the Sand were both released in 2004, just as Talbot was beginning to experiment with the electrified elements that emerged full-blown on 2005’s Fire in Distant Buildings. Offerings: Lost Songs 2000-2004 contains unreleased material from the same period, mostly stripped down and acoustic. In an interview with The Quietus from late last year, Talbot talked about returning to Flashlight Seasons’ mostly quiet, but occasionally effected aesthetic, using four-track manipulation to put a noisy undercurrent under a bleakly gorgeous folk-picked surface. As a result these three sets of decade-old songs were a look back, but also a way forward, a starting point from which Talbot might have gone on had he lived.
Of the three recordings, Flashlight Seasons is likely the most familiar to Gravenhurst fans, the first proper album on Warp records, the one that gained Talbot a wider audience for his fragile but gripping experiments. Already with “Tunnels” you can hear how his spare sketch in guitar, self-harmonized voice, organ opens up into a howl of distorted wind instruments, the chaos leaking into measured sadness. Instrumental “East of the City,” too, layers in effects, a vertiginous squeak of guitar string in the background, a haze of tremolo’d vibration in the foreground. “The Diver” is pristine and unadulterated. With its intricate picking, its high barely voiced lyrics, its sudden updrafts into melancholy falsetto — it makes desolation beautiful. In the same way, “The Ice Tree,” is simply, classically beautiful, just voice and finger-picking, but it’s lyrics are devastating, likening what sounds like clinical depression to a tree covered with ice. “I caress where my lover once lay by my side/Before I turned inwards and forced her to fly,” sings Talbot, and it’s lovely in a chill-up-the-spine kind of way.
Black Holes in the Sand, released later in the same year, moves further away from lean, plaintive folk towards a twitchier, more abrasive sound; the title track erupts midway in a long ragged howl of feedback that sounds like a trapped animal. “Flowers in the Sand” is softer, but criss-crossed with conflicting finger-rhythms. It has a suppressed, seething violence to it under the traditional surface, which underlines its murderous lyrics. Though briefer than Flashlights, Black Holes has an intensity which the earlier album can’t quite match.
Offerings, which completes the set, gathers demos of “Entertainment” and “The Diver” from Flashlight, an alternate take of early single “Gas Mask Days” and a collection of unreleased tracks. Of these, opener “The Citizen” is probably the most striking, with its clean, lucid picking and soft, desperate lyrics. It easily matches the quality of material on the two albums. There are also a series of instrumental tracks, the best and most striking of them “Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?” The song’s title comes from a long-unsolved murder mystery. In the 1940s, some boys in Worcestershire in central England found a decomposing corpse stashed in an elm tree. The cut’s brooding menace matches the theme, scraping guitar strums bombarded by looming electronic textures, a cloudy, desolate day set to music.
The three albums, released as a triple vinyl or a two CD set, show an artist in the process of shifting from acoustic folk into something darker and more dangerous, a prelude to the gloomy glories of full rock band records like Fire in Distant Buildings and The Western Lands. And, on their own, they are lovely and disturbing, gentle yet bubbling with menace, spare and simple yet hinting at irreconcilable complications. If Talbot hadn’t died, they might have been an inspiration for further excursions, but as it happened, they are three more reasons for remembering him and regretting his too early passage.
DOWNLOAD: “The Citizen” “Tunnels” “Black Holes in the Sand”