The music seems to fold around the words. That was my principal response as I was listening to Call in the Crash Team, the debut album from LYR, a collaboration between poet laureate Simon Armitage, musician Richard Walters and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Pearson.
The interaction between spoken-voice-sounds, which carry precise meanings, and music-sounds, which carry more nebulous meanings (to my ears, I mean, a non-musician), is one I find interesting. Sung words seem deliberately to emulate the quality of music, they want to be one with it, to become a feature of a single body created by the sounds made by all the other instruments in the piece combined. They may aspire to be a striking feature, perhaps the most attractive of all, but part of a whole nonetheless. Spoken words are different; they are proud of their difference, they seem to know that they are the body of the piece, that the music, however subtle, nuanced, and expressive, exists for the benefit of the words – to give them colour, warmth, individuality. Music is like a coat wrapped around spoken words. Musicians will disagree I imagine, but this is how it seems to me from the perspective of poetry.
The coat is an apt metaphor given that one of the pieces in Call in the Crash Team (I’m going with pieces because songs surely by definition must be sung), called ‘Greatcoat’, uses the long, heavy coat of a dead man to build a rather sinister picture of his life and character in vague and sometimes surreal terms:
Under its weight you’re buried alive,
under its wing the raven flies.
But I’m ditching you, brother, dropping you off
on the piss-stained steps of a charity shop.
These words are the body of the piece and the simple strings which break out into an electronic beat as the poem progresses are the coat that hangs and folds around them. I say these words, but it’s not the words as you see them above, rather as they are uttered in the recording by our poet-laureate in his well-known, measured northern tones. This is perhaps another reason why the words are amplified above the music: listening to Simon Armitage is like watching Robert Downey Jnr: whoever he’s playing you’re acutely aware that it’s him. And this of course double-edged – there’s a thrill in watching Iron Man, but if you’re after the subtleties of character acting, you’re watching the wrong film. This is not a criticism of Armitage (or Robert Downey Jnr for that matter) it’s just a fact of super-stardom; and if UK poetry has a super-star, it’s Simon Armitage. An actor reading the lines might have made them meld with the music a little more, but that would have created a very different album, and of course Armitage has always been famous for his strong and distinctive poetic voice, with his actual voice delivering the lines being one of the things which has over the years made his live performances so deservedly popular; it is also one of the pleasures of this album. So, on reflection perhaps we should think of a better metaphor for than the man in the coat.
More apt may be to say that the music is the weather, or the atmosphere (I was trying to avoid the word, but hey), that the spoken words of the poems walk through. I still say it folds around them but perhaps more dynamically, like the rush of cars and buffeting air folds around the “Central Reservation Man” in the bleak in-between hinterland of ‘Urban Myth #91’:
Tramping Britain’s middle lane
between the triple carriageways.
Tightrope-walking the thin line
between the barricades.
Or it folds and flaps like the wind that brings the trains to a stop in ‘Leaves on the Line’ (a strange and startling poem that makes a child’s folk rhyme of commuter boredom):
Till Leaf Man come
How long, how long?
Or it hangs and swirls, mist-like, around the very words of these largely rhymed pieces with their lyrically regular rhythms, verse/chorus structures, and Armitagean characterisations; as in ‘The First Time’ (a depressive’s reminiscence of first love and love’s first failure) :
Did you marry that chump with the fags and the cash
And the clapped out Ford and the copper’s moustache…
…Call it the first time,
call it the last time,
call me a dead beat
for slicing up dead meat
There are ghosts all over the place in this album, in that central reservation (wraith-like if not a full-on ghost), in a bathroom doorway (from where a dead woman watches her widower husband get ready, possibly, to go on a first date since her death), and in the sound from the “diamond on vinyl” of a record player still spinning as the police discover the hanging body of a suicide (apparently Ian Curtis of Joy Division). And where there are not ghosts, there are fading memories, lost moments and failed relationships – absences reported or represented in the voice of a character who is only half there themselves. As I think about it now, I wonder if this is one of the reasons the music works well with Armitage’s voice, because as well as enfolding it, it blurs its edges. His voice alone would be a clearly-defined figure, sharply contrasting with a blank background, but the music spreads the figure out, dissipates it, not so much providing a background as pulling at the words so that they become thinner, opaquer, or chameleonesque, more of the background itself. More ghostly.
I’ve shifted here slightly from my original comment that spoken words are proud of their difference, but not so much. I think they are, but maybe hearing music at the same time as words are spoken causes a blurring of meaning-boundaries, and this works ideally for the atmosphere of loneliness, loss, bitterness, and grief that LYR are aiming at with this album.
This makes it sound like a very depressing album, and it would be if it were not (a) leavened by Armitage’s trademark northern drollery (“Stands up on its own when you’re not around, / smells like a dog, smells like it drowned” – ‘Greatcoat’), (b) softened by his almost Beatlesy successions of half-surreal images (“paper-clip bracelet / crucifix pendant / cinnamon toothpaste / chewing-gum pavement / liquorice protest / dragonfly heartbeat” – ‘Zodiac T-shirt’) and (c) lightened by his amusingly peculiar – and sometimes sinister – character colours (e.g. ‘Never Good With Horses):
You said a man with his own telescope
isn’t especially strange,
and to be a collector of doll’s houses
is fine for a guy of your age
But the above-mentioned leavening, lightening and softening is also a result of the music, about which there is nothing remotely depressing. I find Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson’s music beautiful, evocative, and sometimes mesmeric; I’ve focused on how I feel it interacts with the words rather than how it actually sounds in this blog post simply because I don’t know much about music technically and I could say little about it beyond bland Radiohead comparisons – but, to coin a phrase, I know what I like, and the movements, melodies and motifs are clearly very skillfully structured to achieve and emphasise all the effects I’ve mentioned above. The nuances of shading that the music brings to the spoken words I’ll have to leave to a reviewer with a better-trained ear and more music-rich vocabulary than I have.
Suffice to say, though, Call in the Crash Team is worth a listen.