The rich history of English language poetry has been a source of inspiration for musicians and singers. Blake’s verse was always meant to be sung. Shakespeare’s plays are full of songs. Even Thomas Hardy’s poems often appear in a form that resembles traditional balladry. Successful interpreters have ranged from Alfred Deller, who popularised lyrics by Shakespeare, Campion, and Ben Johnson among others, to the Divine Comedy, whose output includes a chamber pop reading of Wordsworth’s Lucy.
Joining this distinguished line is composer and songwriter Fred Thomas. His latest offering, The Beguilers, brings together a host of accomplished musicians – Dave Shulman on Bass, Liam Byrne on viola da gamba, Malte Hage on clarinet, Ellie Rusbridge singing – to tackle a range of poetic subject matter, from Shakespeare to James Joyce. Unsurprisingly, Blake features prominently. The opening track is a setting of A Dream, from Songs Of Innocence, and it introduces us perfectly to the album’s world – richly melodious and at times almost honey-sweet, it is nonetheless a landscape shot through with glimmers of oddity. A Dream‘s presentation is decidedly folky, with the apparent crystalline fluidity of Linda Perhacs or Sibylle Baier, and this is partly down to vocalist Rusbridge. But there is an air of the uncanny about the sound too – a nuanced shift from the antiquated to the modern unpredictable chord changes belying the compositional slickness. There’s a spooked cultishness to it, akin to Broadcast but without recourse to electronics or obvious contemporary cultural signifiers.
Thomas moves quickly to capitalise on the feeling of unease that creeps in to the first song by plunging us from innocence to experience – the next track is again Blake, this time The Little Boy Lost. True to the poet’s original vision it begins in uncertainty and ends in foreboding. From the intro’s doomy bass to Rusbridge’s creeping, creaking vocals, it is a lesson in atmospherics. Fall, Leaves, Fall, an Emily Bronte, verse is simpler and less abstract, but no less evocative, carried along on a bucolic piano and guitar phrase, before brushes of percussion and tender clarinet complete the melancholy vignette.
Things get really interesting on The Night Wind (another Bronte piece). Here the viola da gamba comes into its own. Musically, it is somewhere between Steve Reich’s percussive pieces and Colleen‘s recent work on the gamba – a kind of oriental (or certainly non-European) minimalism. But the lyrics could almost be something out of traditional English song – a reminder of the close ties between poetry and folk balladry. The result is once again an odd but satisfying de-contextualisation, the old rubbing its back against the new. Gentle Lady (James Joyce) achieves a similar result. Joyce’s own, definitive brand of modernism revelled in cultural appropriation and dense references, so it is tempting to think that he would have taken well to Thomas’s working of his lyric, complete with exotic percussion and spectral singing.
Joyce’s Lover’s Tale relies more on traditional (but unexpected) melodic moves combined with the psychedelic production tricks perfected by the Beatles on Tomorrow Never Knows. Mother I Cannot Mind My Wheel (a lyric by Walter Savage Landor, whose verse of the early nineteenth century remains sadly underrated) is another reasonably straight take, much of its power coming from the soft sobs of Shulman’s clarinet. Ask Me No More pitches adroitly plucked acoustic guitar against witchy vocals, turning Thomas Carew’s poem of unequivocal adoration into something altogether more ambivalent, something almost mystical, while Love To Faults Is Always Blind (Blake again) is an icy glimmer of piano minimalism, again evocative of Reich or Terry Riley.
The musical scope of these recordings is one of the reasons they hold our interest longer than similar projects. Frances Pilkington’s Rest, Sweet Nymphs, for example takes us into psych or acid folk territory with lysergic guitar chords. Shakespeare’s Take, O Take Those Lips Away hides in its simple frame delicate strings and flurries of clarinet, and could easily be a lost chamber folk classic, with echoes of Bridget St. John or Nick Drake. The album ends with yet another Blake poem, The Cradle Song. Its first verse, sung a capella, is a showcase for Rusbridge’s stunning voice, an instrument that can somehow be simultaneously intimate and soaring. Then the woodwind and strings take over, reminding us once again of Thomas’s skills as a composer and arranger. It is symptomatic of a project that is full of wonderful contradictions, a record on which the modern and the classical collide and whose restful exterior conceals a heart of dark, beautiful energy. William Blake would surely have approved.
The Beguilers is Out Now