There’s Only So Much Sorrow You Can Drown: A Lazarus Soul’s ‘Funeral Sessions’

Son I best be going, don’t know when I’ll rise again / Son I’m sorry that our prospects are so bleak / A funeral’s a sad excuse to see your only son / But I’ll be back to my old tricks within a week”

‘Funeral Sessions’ from The D They Put Between The R & L

A Lazarus Soul’s record The D They Put Between The R & L is officially out on May 3rd. It’s out at the time of writing on May 2nd, really, as the CD copy I ordered online arrived today. I’ve had a Bandcamp copy for a couple of weeks now and Brian Brannigan’s vital, furious, tender songs have soundtracked my trip in to work in Inchicore for the last few days. I’ve been the guy on the Luas shaking his head at the brilliant bitter poignancy of ‘Lemon 7s’ (“Smoking Lemon 7s through a broken bottle neck / Pills ground down like powder, til your problems are no louder than / A little infant whimpering for Ma to come and help.”)

The D They Put Between The R & L is a dense, tense, explosive, and novelistic record about life in Dublin now and in the last fifty years. It is huge and teeming with life and death. It is crisply and economically performed by Brannigan, Joe Chester, Julie Bienvenu, Anton Hegarty, Vyvyenne Long, and Steve Wickham. They perform in such a way as to frame and illuminate the stories Brian Brannigan is telling. These are songs celebrating people in the inner city and raging against lives being decimated and those doing the decimating.

I’ve spent a few minutes trying to come up with a sentence that captures the content of the songs on this album, and I can’t, and why would I? There’s too much going on. I wrote “novelistic” above, but it’s nearly more like a series of poetic short films, Kieslowski’s Decalogue only on Dominick St. I can’t not quote ‘The Long Balconies’ here: “First day of April 1963 / Mother fell into the lap of luxury / Still tells of the day they handed her the keys / Second floor palace, the long balconies / They did a little dealing in the shade / But of the cops and priests they were afraid / They hung the washing out there on parade / There was good drying.

And I won’t attempt a hot take. It would be a mistake to give some unnecessary overall impression of  The R & L without another couple of dozen listens or so. It might be enough to say that it will clearly demand and reward all those listens at least. It is one of those that you want to stick right back on once you’ve just finished playing it. And records like this have layers. You think you have a favourite song, and you do, but then another one, that maybe you missed something subtle about on first listen, sneaks up and takes its place. I’ve come to consider this in an album as a sign of mastery.

So I only wrote this to convey some early appreciation of A Lazarus Soul’s accomplishment, and to give a quick mention to the R & L song I’m playing most right now. It was my wife who honed in on ‘Funeral Sessions’ the first time we played the record at home and it does capture you. The song’s narrative is a father’s apology and hard-earned advice to his son. They meet at a funeral of a friend who died of an overdose; he “scored bad gear on Henrietta Place”. The father has had to leave because he is afraid that if he stays he too  will die: “The boys I ran with dropping off like flies”. Even now, he knows that he has to get away again or he’ll “be back to my old tricks within a week”. Before he says goodbye to his only son, who he never sees, he gives him one piece of counsel: Leave too.

Some of why we connected straight away with this song is simply its irresistible musicality. Joe Chester’s acoustic guitar has an electric immediacy and Vyvyenne Long’s cello underpins the melody with a haunting counterpoint.  And some of it, for me, I suppose, was how it gives voice to people and stories I encounter every day.

I didn’t grow up in town but I have worked in the south inner city on a community mental health team for about ten years. Mental health crises here are complex: depression and psychosis and suicidal behaviour fuelled by poverty, trauma, deprivation, systemic neglect and drugs and alcohol. All of these things are intertwined. Things keep changing for good and ill but it seems that drugs are more lethal than ever. Crack cocaine took its time getting here but it is ravaging long balconies right now.

So the story told by the father in ‘Funeral Sessions’ is all too familiar and the song is so devastated and resonant and brutally truthful. The father’s escape has left him stalked by guilt and sadness, and “There’s only so much sorrow you can drown“. ‘Funeral Sessions’ ends with the father’s admonition to the son he says he had to leave to save his own life, and it’s a hard one: “In my head on a clear day / I hear my late great father say / You come from here you only got two routes / Be a drunkard and stay local / Be a gearhead, go to town / Or you take your second chance and you get out.”

Yelling Bones’ “Outside”: Why Say Words That I Do Not Mean?

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

David Whyte, Consolations

Outside is the first album by Yelling Bones, who are led by Gerry McGovern and Myles McDonnell. Gerry sings and plays guitar and writes the lyrics. Myles was in Whipping Boy and as I understand it he is the sonic architect in Yelling Bones. He does amazing work here. The arrangement to ‘Outside The Window’ is a work of art in itself, a lesson in building, sustaining and releasing emotion, and the album opens with this gorgeous, shifting, floating chord sequence of ‘Let’s Swim’, that immerses you right away. 

Gerry has had a number of lives but I met him first when he was a writer with Hot Press. I met him just after I joined Hot Press myself as a young fella. I remember lolling about near the front desk in HP in Trinity St in June of 1993 and I had just reviewed the singles, as they often got the newbies to do (don’t get me wrong: it was a HUGE privilege). I had mentioned Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ and had described myself as a Dylanophile in a review of Kingmaker’s ‘Queen Jane’, and don’t ask me how I remember this stuff. So when I said hello to Gerry he had read the singles and we bonded over Bob.

I met Gerry last year for a coffee to talk Yelling Bones and it was the first time we had met in over twenty years. The morning we were to meet I shared Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Twitter and he replied that this was his favourite Dylan song. So we re-bonded. Fist bump to Bob Dylan.

Gerry was one of the handful of writers in HP or anywhere else at the time whose stuff I would read regardless of what he was on about. Mostly, he was on about great stuff – Palace Brothers and Sunbear and Lou Reed and The Flaming Lips and the like. Also, Whipping Boy – in his review of Heartworm he said that it was one of the greatest albums he had ever heard, not knowing then the status it would ultimately acquire. But it didn’t matter what he wrote about. It was how he wrote, with poetic colour and a passion and earnestness that I enjoyed and admired. He was not shy about spelling out how much he loved the music even when that meant exposing himself emotionally. He would press the music upon you: Listen to this! This moves me! His writing was unafraid. I looked up to him a lot.

Gerry’s writing hasn’t changed too much. He goes for it. Why say words that he does not mean?

‘A Good Man’ lays it all out, an explicit inquiry into existential and ethical doubts that many of us worry about quietly: “It’s a work in progress, but it’s very slow / I’ve stumbled many times. I suppose you know / But I keep struggling on, stubborn as I am / Reaching for something better, trying to be a good man… Maybe I’m not trying hard enough / Is my talk of change a lifetime’s bluff / Am I making enough effort? Am I really doing all I can? / Hoping for something better, trying to be a good man“.

Actually, it really helps to hear this in Gerry’s voice. It’s a lovely instrument. His voice is not un-Bob-like; he whispers, he strains to hit higher notes, and his pitch wavers when the emotion gets intense. His voice is as vulnerable as the lyrics and his singing is completely committed. And Myles’s arrangement again – so subtle and deft; piano trios filling out the sound around Gerry’s voice. The song leads into ‘Outside The Window’. I haven’t spoken to Gerry about this one but I hear it as a revisiting of his childhood; it’s pretty painful. “They hate each other / His father and mother / It will come to blows.”

‘Outside The Window’ ends back in the exact present as Gerry sings, supported by strings but almost a cappella, voice tremulous: “Some day he’ll smile / Sing for the child / Who will help him grow / Some of us get by / That child survives / He’s tougher than he knows“.

Something about that combination of resilience and vulnerability is what epitomises this record and, you know, much of the music that really matters. Great music can be a source of strength but there is no resilience without vulnerability. Music can only provide strength and solace if it is emotionally open and honest enough to let you in, in the first place, to where fear and hope and doubt and all the raw human stuff is hiding. Vulnerability and resilience are at the heart of who we are, at the heart of a full life, and at the heart of this music.

Would You Use It To Hurt Me? – Julia Jacklin’s Bruising ‘Body’

Julia Jacklin’s album Crushing is out on February 22nd and it opens with a song that has been circulating since last October called ‘Body’. In a feature on ‘Body’ on NPR’s All Songs Considered, Jacklin described the song as “a long and exaggerated sigh”.

‘Body’ tells a story in the second person. The protagonist addresses an ex-boyfriend and explains how and why she left him. Her ex ruined a trip by getting arrested and it sounds like a last straw. She is tired of his self-regarding fecklessness: “I know you’d like to believe it, baby / But you’re more kid than criminal.” He is “just a boy who could not get through a domestic flight / without lighting up in the restroom“.

The arrangement here as throughout the song is sparse. There’s a snare drum partnering an insistent andante 1-2 bass line (boom, boom-boom; boom, boom-boom) and rumbling piano chords every second bar or so. The piano is like way-off thunder. There’s a guitar but there is no strumming of full chords. The atmosphere is taut and tense.

As she leaves the narrator sings of “heading to the city to get my body back” – reclaiming herself. But she imagines his response to her leaving. She anticipates vengeful violent spite. This guy is not used to facing consequences. Even when the police came to the plane, she reminds him, “They let you finish your meal”.

She foresees reprisals, and she recalls an old imposed intimacy that leaves her exposed. She sings “I remembered early days / When you took my camera / Turned to me, twenty-three / Naked on your bed / Looking straight at you“. Of course he took her camera; she didn’t offer it. She asks him: “Do you still have that photograph? / Would you use it to hurt me?” Then an exhalation: “Well I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body“.

It took me a few days of listening a lot to ‘Body’ to begin to understand how the song’s tension is attained and sustained. For the first half of the song the chords dissolve slowly into each other and they progress between A minor, D major, F major, and back to A minor. Anyone who has played an instrument knows that D major doesn’t belong there. A minor and F major are in the same key, of C, and D major is in the key of D. That D major sounds dissonant. It evokes unease, like there’s something hanging unresolved and disquieting over the verses.

Then as the song closes, Jacklin repeats the final couplet four more times. She’s accompanied by the guitar and bass and an organ that plays flurries of notes in A minor, F major, C major, and F major. These chords all go together in the key of C and coming from the previous dissonance this sounds right. It sounds complete and final. So the song is resolved at its most resigned moment: I guess it’s just my life, and it’s just my body.

I first thought “seething” described this song but I was projecting. You naturally want justice but that’s no guarantee of getting any. The song does not have the energy to be angry. The song has too much experience to be optimistic. The protagonist leaves a guy because he is proudly careless and destructive and now his careless destructiveness hangs over her. He doesn’t deserve power but he won’t let it go. It’s hard to tolerate the song concluding so full of lingering indefinite dread. But there are times, concludes ‘Body’, that anger is an affectation.

Knowledge of Beauty: Seán Power & Peter Broderick’s ‘Ballad of the Lights’

Walk into our kitchen any time in the last three weeks and you might have come across either of our two sons sitting at the table playing Lego and saying “Very, very, very beautiful” in what they imagine to be a Galway accent. They just intone it to themselves at random moments. Michael, who is seven, also likes saying “Suddenly, the ice that was floating down the Hudson river STOPS” and chuckling. They are quoting a song, one that has settled in to all our imaginations, ‘Ballad of the Lights’ by Peter Broderick and Seán Power.

‘Ballad of the Lights’ is originally by Arthur Russell. Peter and Seán’s version is on a fascinating tribute album, Peter Broderick & Friends Play Arthur Russell. The wonderful singer-songwriter Brigid Mae Power is on the album too and she is Seán Power’s mother. She is also Peter Broderick’s wife and I think this means that Seán is Peter’s stepson. Seán is so good on this song – I guess he couldn’t miss it.

In our house we have long been positively disposed to Arthur Russell. My wife listened to his instrumental albums relentlessly when she was pregnant with our youngest, who is three. Evan was so nearly named Arthur, but we were also on a Lemonheads buzz that year. Still, we had never heard Russell’s ‘Ballad of the Lights’ until we heard Peter and Seán’s version when it came out on Christmas Day.

‘Ballad of the Lights’ is really a poem and song narrated by a person looking out from New York to New Jersey (“Why I chose New Jersey to look at I don’t know“). Seán opens the song and he does the spoken word sections. Allen Ginsberg performed those parts on the 1977 recording. No pressure Seán! Peter sings the Arthur Russell parts. Seán begins:

A young man sits on the bridge after night fall
And looks across the Hudson river to New Jersey
He wonders about life

And he wonders if he'll ever get old
He sees the lights

And he wonders if they are talking to each other
And he wonders if they are talking to him
And he asks if they are 

I tweeted a few days ago that Allen Ginsberg is great and everything but he’s no Seán Power. And I do genuinely prefer his performance to Ginsberg’s. But Ginsberg is at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering Arthur Russell lyrics. This song is about finding magic and mystery in apparently humdrum experience. I was going to write “magic and mystery where there is none”, but that’s not it. If the narrator can find it, it’s there.

That the narrator here is voiced by a child is part of it because kids have amazing powers of finding mystery. Children are always asking if street lights are talking amongst themselves or if there are worms on the moon and so on. But it’s also that Seán has the recitation skills of a nascent poet. He makes these lines sound fresh, like he wrote them. When he lands on the final word in the line “Suddenly, the ice that was floating down the Hudson river STOPS“, I hear Paul Durcan in my head on ‘In The Days Before Rock’n’Roll’, as he escalates and exclaims: “Nor Fats, nor Elvis / Nor Sonny, nor Lightning / Nor Muddy, nor John Lee!”

Anyway. We play this song and album a lot and we have a busy kitchen and often you don’t be listening too carefully. But there’s a point in the song that always stills me. Mostly Peter and Seán swap verses but there is one point when Seán replies within a verse to a single line of Peter’s. It’s when Peter sings, of the New Jersey lights, “They are so beautiful”, and Seán replies “Very, very, very beautiful”. It’s such a warm and earnest moment and such a sweet father-son exchange. I love that he says “very” a full three times – like, he’s not kidding. I love when my kids listen and when they copy Seán and gently say “Very, very, very beautiful” when they are idling about. I’m glad they are connecting with this wonderful stuff. Knowledge of beauty is itself rare.

Lubomyr Melnyk: It Is Like Having the Sun in Your Hands

“The natural world is where we evolved; where we became what we are, where we learned to feel and to react. It is where the human imagination formed and took flight, where it found its metaphors and its similes, among trees and pure rivers and wild creatures and grasslands rippled by the wind … It is nature which is the true haven for our psyches.”

– Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm

Lubomyr Melnyk is a Ukrainian-Canadian pianist and composer who turned 70 in December. He is the key exponent of continuous music, “a piano technique based on extremely rapid notes and complex note-series, usually with the sustain pedal held down to generate harmonic overtones and sympathetic resonances”. Melnyk invented continuous music in the 1970s and there’s a 1978 album, KMH: Piano Music in the Continuous Mode, on Spotify. He remained busy throughout the 1980s but in recent years was languishing until the Erased Tapes label rediscovered him in the early 2010s. Melnyk apparently asked: “Where were you when I was 30?”

Melnyk is the eminence grise of Erased Tapes, home to Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and so on. His Erased Tapes bio describes the genesis of continuous music: “He began to play a new kind of music, spontaneous and improvisatory… Using the sustain pedal to create echo and reverb, he transformed free-flowing cascades of notes into hypnotic waves of sound”. His own site attests to the music’s “meditative and metaphysical” aspects. Reading this self-endorsement I think: “We’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much” and also “Yes, that’s right”.

I saw Melnyk on January 24th, with my wife Sharon in a converted cinema in Hackney. Leaving the country for a concert is a big event so we ration these trips for shows that we expect to be be really special and it was extraordinary. The show was a 70th birthday celebration organised by Erased Tapes. They signed him when he was in his early sixties, and his Erased Tapes comrade Peter Broderick collaborated on his 2013 album Corollaries, which won attention his earlier work had not. He played pieces alone and with Peter Broderick and Hatis Noit. As Melnyk wound down his final piece I felt this pang of sadness, which though unexpected was no surprise, because I did not want to let go of the moment. I wondered if I’d ever share a space with Melnyk again. I was going to miss being in a room with him and his piano. I’d love to be there right now.

In practice, continuous music means that Melnyk plays long pieces that build and evolve, ebb and flow, inexorably, ever-changing. He moves in complex coruscating arpeggios up and down the keys. He plays with the speed and intensity of the Dead Kennedys and the delicacy of the Cocteau Twins. The sound is ocean waves then raindrops sprinkling a lake. Patterns repeat but subtly shift like Michael McCarthy’s grasslands rippled by the wind. The music is physical: you feel it in your chest and your belly as much as you hear it. When I really stay with a Melnyk piece I can feel it in my breathing and in the way I connect with the ground. At the show, as Melnyk and Peter Broderick were finishing up ‘Pockets of Light’, I noticed my heart was beating in time with the music. It just was!

There are a few nature metaphors there and this is by deliberate design of Melnyk. His 2015 album was called Rivers and Streams and he said then that his playing was akin to water: “flowing and ever connected”. He said he was influenced by minimalist composers and I can hear sacred minimalism in Rivers and Streams, ‘Pockets of Light’, and Fallen Trees, but the sacred object is the natural world.

I had read a bit about Lubomyr Melnyk before flying to London, and I’d listened to him a lot, and I had been looking forward so much to seeing him. I’d read him compared to Rasputin, and I’d seen his prodigious beard, and I imagined some haughty Franz Liszt character. I understood he had claimed to be the Jimi Hendrix of the piano or somesuch and this was fine. I’ve been to a lot of shows by half-ironic performers who are embarrassed to be as good as they are or to allow their work to mean as much as it could. I was looking forward to seeing someone who knows he is the greatest and does not apologise. I was expecting greatness and seriousness from Lubomyr Melnyk, and that was going to be quite enough. I was expecting to witness mastery. I wasn’t expecting as much joy. I had him wrong.

I cannot explain to another pianist what it is, but I could tell them truthfully that being able to play continuous music is worth more than anything in the universe. Anything. It is like having the sun in your hands. It is like having the four winds. It is like having ice and snow. It is like having hurricanes. It’s like having steel and factories. It’s like having the sunshine just pouring through your fingers. It’s – it’s – it’s a JOY.

– Lubomyr Melnyk, “The Continuous Music Man”

In Hackney, Melnyk bowed and thanked the crowd before walking offstage in a manner so delighted and appreciative that you very much wanted to bear-hug him. He spoke about of his forty-year struggle with a classical music establishment that hadn’t wanted to hear continuous music: “But you do!” (Huge cheer.) Built into the bear-hug is the sense of loss of a musician of Melnyk’s calibre being overlooked for so long, but there’s also an amazing inner resolve at work there. Imagine the belief in yourself and your art that it takes to persist despite apathy from all-comers for thirty years. Imagine that sense of mission! What a gift.

Also, Melnyk is not one to look back. At the show, he said that he would not be playing any old music. He opened with a new work and he said the only person who’d heard it before was himself. “This piece has no name yet,” he told us. “It’s for you. It’s all just music!” His career is a constant act of creating the new right now. He said “There’s nothing like the feeling the first time a piece of music is born”.

It is a lot to ask of a musician or any artist to ask them to make us feel joy. There is a lot to not be joyful about. There is always a new story about humans destroying each other or destroying the earth. And joy has to be genuine. Joy has to exist despite knowledge that contradicts it. An artist who instils joy must acknowledge the suffering and calamity and still find a spark of eternal hope. This is difficult at the best of times but for weeks before seeing Lubomyr I’d been thinking more than usual about the destruction of the natural world. This is often what’s in my mind when nothing else is, but I’d been carrying around a pall of gloom after reading a piece detailing the collapse of insect life in the rain forest in Puerto Rico. I couldn’t shake the thought that if they go, we all go, and even if we don’t, species-loneliness is what we’re leaving our kids. The music in Hackney was suffused with love for nature but can you enjoy hymns to the natural world when the natural world is disappearing? Surely grief is the right response? Surely these are elegies?

I thought about Lubomyr here and his long journey and the ecstatic quality of his work; the bountiful heart that is in it. I watched him play this electric luminous music with his back straight, his arms extended and his eyes closed, like he and the piano were interwoven. I watched him stand and beam and look over at his instrument and touch it again, and shake his head with wonder and say “You know, every day the piano sounds more beautiful”. I thought, I really want to accept this joy, but it felt indulgent to do so while the rivers and forests to which Melnyk’s music pays homage are being deserted and despoiled.

It’s taken a few days to get my head at all straight about this and to attempt a response, which actually comes from Michael McCarthy, a writer and naturalist I encountered on On Being. In The Moth Snowstorm, McCarthy writes that to prevent the ruination of the natural world, people must regain belief in nature’s worth. He compares the change in our worldview that will be required to save it to the changes that accompanied the the Renaissance and the spread of religion: “These are great events,” he writes, “but they are fully matched in historical significance by the calamitous event we are entering upon, the destruction of the natural world”.

He argues that we need to reawaken a delight in nature, to remember “that there is an ancient bond with the natural world surviving deep within us, which makes it not just a luxury, not an optional extra, not even just an enchantment, but part of our essence – the natural home for our psyches where we can find not only joy but also peace, and to destroy which is to destroy a fundamental part of ourselves.” He writes that a mature love for the natural world recognises the scale of the threat, and is engaged, and a love for a forest or lake or bird will recognise that they may not be there next year, and that love “will do whatever it can to protect or save it; [it is] a love that can be fierce”.

McCarthy’s book ends where I think Melnyk and his fallen trees and raindrops and huge unruly beauty comes in; where the joy Melnyk’s work invokes and inspires finds an even higher purpose, and finds a hopeful, hard-headed home. “Now as the twenty-first century crashes upon the natural world like a tsnunami, with all the obliteration and merciless unthinking ruin,” concludes McCarthy, “let this new love be expressed; let it be articulated; let it be proclaimed.”

Let’s See What Happens

I met Peter Broderick last March at the DotMd conference on medicine and the arts in Smock Alley. He had just played a short set to a room of doctors. It seemed that not that many people knew him and he was just standing there while we had our lunch.

I have never quite shaken the notion that the musicians I love are a little bit other/more than human and shouldn’t be as readily accessible as Broderick was at DotMd. You shouldn’t be able to just go over and say hello. So it took me a minute. He was great. He has a huge, huge smile. I told him how much my wife Sharon loved his piece ‘A Tribute to our Letter Writing Days’. “No-one ever mentions that one!” he said, apparently genuinely delighted. He signed the copy I bought of All Together Again “To Sharon – Long live the letter!” ‘Tribute’ was from when he had just started singing on his records and I wasn’t sure at first, like I wasn’t sure when Kevin Murphy in Slow Moving Clouds started singing. Sharon was right: Peter Broderick has a beautiful voice, unassuming but full of character. (So does Kevin.)

I’ve listened to Broderick a lot in the last decade, since discovering post-classical music in the late 2000s initially through Johann Johannsson and Max Richter. I would have initially bracketed him with people like Goldmund, Dustin O’Halloran, and Nils Frahm, the melodic melancholic solo piano guys. Broderick’s early solo piano work is really popular; ‘Begin’, the opening track on his first album, has 6 million Spotify listens. He released that in 2008 when he was 21. He could have continued in that vein with great success but he is restless and he has been careful not to be pigeonholed. He is from Oregon but he lives in Galway now and I think you can hear it in his violin playing in particular.

Broderick is incredibly curious and his creative energy is unbelievable. He has released about fifteen albums in the decade since ‘Begin’, including an album of covers of Arthur Russell songs that emerged unheralded last Christmas Day. It is gorgeous. I have rarely known any musician better at conceiving and completing and releasing work. No MBV he. He writes, records, releases, then: Next! It’s amazing.

At DotMD, we chatted about the legendary Ukrainian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, who collaborated with Peter on a mesmerising piece, ‘Pockets of Light’, from a 2013 album called Corollaries. Broderick and Melnyk are playing together next week in London to celebrate Melnyk’s 70th birthday. He was graciously appreciative of my knowledge of his work with Melnyk and ‘Pockets of Light’ in particular. (I’d named a Spotify playlist and a previous post for the song). He asked if I had heard what he says to Melnyk at the outset of the song, a nineteen-minute torrent of continuous music, and I said no. I listened later. ‘Pockets of Light’ was the first piece they’d ever recorded together. Before Melnyk begins, you can hear Broderick saying “Let’s see what happens”. I loved that – as an exhortation, and as an artistic code to live by for a musician just obviously enthused by the sounds that are out there for the shaping. Long live the letter; long live Broderick’s intoxicating adventure.

Album review: Alonewalk by Dave Couse, State, 2010.

In 2003, shortly before he died, the activist and critic Edward Said published On Late Style, an examination of the late works of towering figures in the arts, like Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, and the mercurial genius pianist Glenn Gould. Said was interested in commonalities between the late works of artists across disciplines: how did they differ from the work that makes a young, voraciously hungry artist’s name?

Late style is not something that pop music has done well. What band has gotten better as its members have gotten older? Which artists have done their best work beyond 40, or even 30? There are decent bands who have peaked before their first single came out. (I’m thinking of Suede and Magazine, but I’m sure 21st century examples exist.) Pop music has always been, or has appeared to be, about young hunger and electric inspiration rather than age-acquired craft. It’s not just a question of work getting better, or worse, with time. On Late Style would ask: name a pop artist who has made a genuine, half-successful attempt to adapt his or her means of expression as he or she has gotten older, the better to express the changing realities of life. They are few. But by now it may be obvious that I’m going to make a case for Couse.

I’m conscious of the absurdity of (A) comparing Dave Couse to Beethoven and (B) writing about the late-life artistic achievement of a man in his mid-forties. But, in reverse order, (B) the point is not actual advancing years as much as it is the recognition that an evolving understanding of the world demands an evolution in expression and (A) I have just spent two weeks with Alonewalk and it is such a thrilling and mysterious and moving record that, for now, the comparison stands.

The first question might be: what’s different? And with the opening song, ‘Black and White’, patterns emerge. First there is the stately pace, sometimes martial, which persists almost through the entire album. There is an enjoyable tinkering with song structure. The melody is memorable and piano-led; Couse learned to play after buying his first piano at 40, and listens, you might think, to a lot of John Cale. Fergal Bunbury provides interlocking arpeggiate guitar lines. The vocal is dominated by Couse’s falsetto. And Couse sings very few words. These songs are not ‘Small Talk’. Track two, ‘Dark Blue’, develops that theme. The entire lyric: “As dark blue invades you / And this life, this life escapes you / Let my love surround you / As this life becomes you / If dark blue proceeds to take over you / I beseech you / Let my love surround you / As this life becomes you / See through / Dark blue”. That’s it; it’s not much more than a haiku. For someone whose verbosity is the stuff of legend, it’s a big move. It allows the songs the space to breathe.

In ‘Don’t Say a Word’, and most of the time, Couse’s falsetto really works. There’s a line at the end of the second verse: “Love, love’s all there is / You know I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat”; Couse exhales the word ‘heartbeat’ with an extraordinary intimacy. Elsewhere, he sings “Now / Now’s not the time / I know what you’re here for / But it’s not mine to give”. No more is explained. What has happened? What’s not his to give? Who knows? In Alonewalk, Couse has the confidence to leave gaps. I think this is a recognition that his audience, which is in all likelihood aging with him, doesn’t need to be beaten over the head with literal lyrical meaning. We bring ourselves to the songs and we fill in the blanks with our own experiences. That could be wrong, but it’s what I’m doing regardless.

On Alonewalk, Couse’s falsetto replaces what another reviewer has called his “trademark nasal sneer”. If this is the perception of Couse’s normal voice, then I’m not surprised he ran as far away from it as he could. It was never my perception of his voice, though, and I doubt that a generation of Irish indie fans would have been as upset as they were at A House’s legendary last Olympia show if a sneer was all we were saying goodbye to. Of course, Couse does caustic. But his non-falsetto voice has huge, cracked character – think of ‘My Heart Bleeds’, ‘The Comedy Is Over’, ‘Thirteen Wonderful Songs’, ‘As The Colours’, or, most obviously, ‘When I First Saw You’. (Jesus, how many times did I play that song, over and over again.)

There are times when his falsetto falters, like ‘Good Friday’, a mostly magnificent duet with Cathal Coughlan where he overstretches it. At moments like that I wish he would trust his normal register. These are songs that would fit neatly on a Nick Cave album (specifically, The Good Son); Couse could use and is entitled to have Cave’s vocal confidence. Falsetto can be a shortcut to excessively signposted emotion, and should be used sparingly, like whiskey in your morning cup of tea.

‘Habitual’ is the closest we come to an old-school Couse stomper. There’s a glistening glockenspiel riff and a curiously self-confident lyric (“One of these fine days I’m gonna be king / I’m gonna change the world I live in… And I still hold on so tightly to the beliefs that I’ve held on to all my life”). It’s a measure of how far from normal Couse service this is that a cocky lyric is worth remarking on, but it’s curious because it’s so out of keeping with the uncertain air of the rest of the songs. That uncertainty – acknowledging and accepting that you don’t know as much as you once thought you did – has the ring of truth when expressed by a man in middle age. This is no longer ‘I Am The Greatest’, half-ironic as even that was.

Even in the following song, the lovely ‘What Will Become of Us’, Couse challenges his earlier belief-system certainty, asking: “Are we living, or trapped in time? / Are we big enough to change our minds?” Not that we want Couse to be consistent – consistency is a characteristic of glue or dough, not songwriters – and any qualms about ‘Habitual’ are erased by the warm, sharp and, well, nostalgic coda, the surprise of which, for A House lovers, I won’t ruin. ‘What Will Become of Us’ is another deftly arranged and touching piece, Couse harmonising with himself and Rike Soeller’s empathetic cello. It is really, really hard to get the tune out of your head.

‘All Tomorrows’ and ‘Time’ end things adroitly. The ten-minute ‘Time’ almost attains the status of an epic, as Couse runs through the ravages of time, almost in the manner of a list song. “Time / Time can break your heart… Time is a brutal thing / Time changes everything … Time will take us / Time will break us”. But like all of Alonewalk it’s not a song that feels sorry for itself. Halfway through the song come two minutes of birdsong, then a solo piano, simple and strong. And that’s it.

If there is a pattern to be discerned from Dave Couse’s varied and storied career, it is that he does his best work when there are no expectations; when he’s completely free. A House recorded I Want Too Much – twenty years ago! – when they knew they were going to be dropped, so they just went for it on the beach in Inishbofin. His least satisfying records have emerged when either a major label or multiple producers or himself have been keeping a commercial eye. Couse recorded this one in his own house, in his own time, with his friends, and it shows. I hope that the praise Alonewalk is getting will not stymie him next time out. And I hope that I won’t jinx Couse by suggesting that he has found a voice that will serve him for years ahead, and he could be at the cusp of a great late career.

But if I’m right in my interpretation of Edward Said, this is unjinxable. The New York Times review of On Late Style put it well: “What artist does not yearn, some day, to possess a “late style”? A late style would reflect a life of learning, the wisdom that comes from experience, the sadness that comes from wisdom and a mastery of craft that has nothing left to prove.” Nothing left to prove? That sounds like our man.