The Little Unsaid – Selected Works
Reveal Records – 18 May 2018
As the driving force behind the Reveal Records, Tom Rose has been responsible for giving a platform to some of the most beloved and critically acclaimed acts of recent times, not least Brit folk legends Lau and Eddi Reader and New York singer songwriter Joan As Policewoman. So when he gets genuinely excited about a band, it’s worth listening. The band in question, The Little Unsaid, is the songwriting outlet for Yorkshire-born John Elliott. Rose was first introduced to Elliott’s songs in 2016 and was so moved that he spent the next year trying to work out how to become involved with the band. He now acts as their manager and has instigated the release – on his own label – of Selected Works, which serves as both a career retrospective and a valuable primer for the uninitiated.
The first thing you notice about these songs is their emotional honesty. Elliott writes about mental illness from the point of view of someone who has lived through it and come out the other side, someone who is acutely aware of how close he still is to his demons. But his songs are full of hope, full of the potential for a better future despite the continued proximity of depression. All this can be gleaned from just the first song, the heartstoppingly sad piano ballad Day Is Golden, in which seemingly banal details – using the wrong toothbrush – become crushing, deadening events, but which carries nonetheless a message of personal redemption. It is a theme he revisits often – Let Desire Back In and Symptomatic both explore illness and the healing process.
Elliott is an artist of considerable range. The simple piano balladry of the opener is followed by something altogether more experimental. Why I Came Here was inspired by experimental Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (one of the most important compositions of the 20th century, it has recently enjoyed a raised profile thanks to its prominent use in the last series of Twin Peaks). Here the uncanny hides in the plain sight of a pop song, proof that Elliott can employ a twist of melody to create and stimulate an emotional response just as well as he can a lyric.
But it would be wrong to say that The Little Unsaid is all about Elliott – he is accompanied by a settled lineup of Mariya Brachova (Moog, bass), Alison D’Souza (viola) and Tim Heymerdinger (percussion) and the importance of the full band soon becomes apparent. Why I Came Here’s percussion is a vital ingredient when it comes to the song’s creeping, weird feel. Symptomatic is a perfect marriage of the lyrically bleak (an unflinchingly honest meditation on Elliott’s PTSD) and the musically sympathetic. The song’s glitchy pulse feels like a nod to trip-hop, but there is depth and warmth here too, particularly in the strings.
There are straighter songs here too: Alive As is almost like folk-rock Radiohead. Once again the clipped, tight percussion is prominent, before the finale in which Elliott takes the role of frontman in an imaginary post-rock/folktronica crossover act. But this collection’s biggest appeal is perhaps its diversity. Docklands treads the margins of hauntology and psychogeography, showing that Elliott can do political as well as personal, and Imagined Hymn’s combination of acoustic guitar, strings and ghostly backing vocals has something of Songs Of Love And Hate era Leonard Cohen about it.
Perhaps strangest and most wonderful of all is Can We Hear It? A cut-up children’s choir, spindly electronica, soaring vocals and unconventional time signatures combine to form something that sounds like a cross between Thom Yorke and Tom Tom Club on Xanax. Chaingang Mantras is almost as unusual: an impassioned set of commandments that becomes an exploration of the self, with an impressive vocal turn by Brachkova. Even the seemingly simple moments here have more to them than meets the eye. Where There’s Smoke is a fairly straightforward (but emotionally loaded) acoustic guitar track at first glance, but it soon reveals a layer of fluttering, uneasy layer of electronics, seeping out of the song as it progresses. The Plunge works in the opposite direction, beginning with skittering beats before piano and strings attempt to bring in some kind of grounding. The song is a fine example of something The Little Unsaid do very well indeed: namely, creating tension between extremes (harmony and discord, sadness and joy, the technological and the organic), and this tension bears the weight of the lyrical subject matter.
Talking about his songwriting process, Elliott has described ‘sitting down to write a positive love song and all the ghosts come along to stick their bloody fingers in and ruin it.’ He was referring specifically to the spectral Tumbling Snow, but explains pretty well the tension that makes these songs so appealing and often uneasy, it is a statement that could be applied to almost anything here. In Through The Fields it is implicit in the difference between the songwriter and the music fans he observes dancing, intoxicated, at a festival: it lays bare the gaps between performer and listener, but also the links.
Essentially, Elliott’s songs are about the human mind, its fragility and also its strength. While In This House describes with terrifying lucidity the tricks that the mind can play, closing track Fisher King (inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland) is far more ambiguous, a lyrical triumph which offers little in the way of answers but – in its repeated Hindu refrain – emphasises the need to communicate, take your place in the world, perhaps to recognise that the dark house of the individual mind is just a chamber in a greater universal structure.
Great art can often come from the darkest places, and it shouldn’t be forgotten when listening to The Little Unsaid that many of these songs were born out of very real human experience. They are musically inventive and lyrically astute documents of this experience, but more than that they offer a clearer way of understanding it, and perhaps even a way of helping to overcome its darker periods.
Selected Works is out 18 May via Reveal Records