World War I understandably casts a long shadow over this country’s psyche, but its reach has been particular and direct for Field Music; their latest album is a song suite commissioned for two live performances in January this year by the Imperial War Museum, as part of their Making A New World season.
Peter and David Brewis have used the most cataclysmic of world conflicts as raw material before, of course: they co-wrote the score for Esther Johnson’s 2017 documentary Asunder, which used archival footage to explore Sunderland’s connection to the Somme. But this time around the pair used a very particular tool to pull history into focus, namely a photo of the record – made via sound ranging – of artillery fire on the American front during the 60 seconds either side of the 11am armistice. The nerve-shattering horror and subsequent silence that were the project’s springboard are referenced in the album’s two brief opening instrumentals, while the former is reiterated in the muffled booms that punctuate “From A Dream, Into My Arms”. However, Making A New World isn’t a WWI concept record as such, although it’s obviously more tightly bound to its content than say, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, the nearest point of comparison.
Originally, the brothers planned to write mostly instrumentals but as David Brewis told Uncut, “The research led us to subjects we couldn’t help but write songs about. With each song, we had a moment of realising who should be telling that particular story and that led us away from something academic and into something much more personal. We were also conscious that at the Imperial War Museum shows, this would be the first time anyone had heard any of this music so it needed to be either accessible or dramatic.” Field Music being Field Music, pop immediacy won the day, which isn’t to say that these songs are all surface dazzle and deaf to nuance – they deliver on narrative particularity and interpretive abstraction as well as emotional resonance, while the pair’s writing/arranging smarts and the dominant, switchback guitar style are on peak form. The set clocks in at just under 40 minutes, with the basics recorded in two run-throughs by the Field Music live band plus Peter and David Brewis on guitar and drums respectively, in a single day.
The suite starts with the end of the war, then moves through events connected to it. Included are the signing of the armistice agreement on a private train in a siding near Compiègne (“Coffee Or Wine”), the pioneering skin-graft work done on wounded servicemen and later female-to-male gender reassignment surgery (“A Change Of Heir”), the use decades later of marine ultrasound technology to monitor foetal development (“From A Dream, Into My Arms”) and the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France to divide the Middle East (“An Independent State”). Crucially, these narratives with serious historical heft are adapted to a human scale: there’s the officer in “Coffee Or Wine” wondering of his family back home, “Will I recognise you all?/Or have you grown away from me since I’ve been away so long?”; the narrator of “Change Of Heir” who reasons, “if the mind won’t fit the body, let the body fit the mind”; and the mother who sees her unborn in its “primordial bath”, on a monitor (“From A Dream, Into My Arms”).
That all this is delivered with Field Music’s customary artful intelligence and funk-pop verve, repping for Genesis/Peter Gabriel, Steely Dan, “Fame”-era Bowie, Talking Heads, Robert Wyatt and Kraftwerk, rather than using a load of self-consciously solemn signifiers, is another point in the record’s favour. There aren’t too many bands who could channel talk about war reparations into Chic’s trebly funk (“Money Is A Memory”), connect the British use of tanks at the Somme with the unidentified lone protestor in Tiananmen Square via a watery bloom of Animal Collective and XTC (the two-part “Nikon”) or, most strikingly, deliver a song about women’s learned shame of menstruation and the unfair tax on sanitary towels (“Only In A Man’s World”) as a Talking Heads-style disco banger.
Making A New World may have started life as a gleam in the eye of a special projects director, but rather than act like temporary caretakers tiptoeing around WWI’s vast, eternally resonant themes, Field Music have sensibly moved in and made them their own. Not a memorial, then, so much as a remix of history.