Tough to make, astonishingly realised: Southenders’ melodic third raises their game again…
When news of These New Puritans’ third album began to circulate at the end of April, the announcement felt more like a warning. Be prepared, sit up straight, and wipe that smile off your face, it insinuated, Field Of Reeds is not to be taken lightly. A short video showed the band driving at night and hard at work in various studios, rehearsing brass ensembles and playing expensive percussion. We glimpsed them in their element – vexed, curious, disciplined – and were reminded that These New Puritans are unlike any other British band in recent memory.
Pitched awkwardly on the hinterland between rock, pop and classical, they closely resemble an indie outfit – six years ago they were teenage contemporaries of fellow Southend-on-Sea tearaways The Horrors – and their music is framed and presented in a pop context. This made sense for their 2008 debut Beat Pyramid, an itchy, urgent post-punk racket bristling with precocious ideas – YouTube the brilliant “Elvis” – but now seems inadequate to cater for Field Of Reeds, with its great sweeps of brass and woodwind, its lush, crepuscular mood and hazy, murmured vocals. No choruses here, let alone obvious singles, and yet its mellow nature and real-ale warmth contrive to make this their friendliest – or least threatening – collection. Even so, this must be a nightmarish proposition for any record label, you’d imagine, with sales what they are, but their devoted fanbase is large and in a surprise move following a protracted legal wrangle, TNPs have switched from Domino and Angular, the label that nurtured them, to Infectious Music, becoming labelmates with last year’s Mercury Prize winners Alt-J. Field Of Reeds seems a safe bet for this year’s shortlist. Unmarketable it might be, but there’s no cooler album to be associated with.
Led by the 26-year-old Barnett twins, Jack and George, These New Puritans were last spotted in public two years ago patrolling the stages of London’s Barbican and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. There they performed their ambitious 2010 album Hidden in full – a treatment usually reserved for classic albums by newly reformed groups at Don’t Look Back events – accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia, a children’s choir, ten-foot taiko drums and a Foley rig with melons which, when hit with a hammer, suggested a human skull being smashed in, like a scene from Berberian Sound Studio. It didn’t matter that they’d never attempted anything on that scale before. TNPs are not ones to shrink from a challenge.
Original and bold, particularly when you consider its authors were 22 years old, Hidden took the band and the listener out of their comfort zone. With that record, Jack Barnett, TNPs’ de facto leader, singer and main creative force, wanted to unite the ephemeral qualities of pop with the broader themes of classical music. He went about this by fusing the icy precision of hip-hop rhythms and the digital swagger of dancehall in a pastoral hymn to Benjamin Britten’s Thames Estuary heartland, a region the group share with the composer. Not long after, Barnett embarked on, and then abandoned, a musical project about the 12 islands of Essex. Easy to admire though hard to really love, Hidden impressed enough to rank high in many end-of-year charts, including NME’s No.1, but you’ll struggle to find a milkman whistling anything off it.
In order to correctly score Hidden, Barnett taught himself classical notation, and would compose every note of Field Of Reeds in this way. When it came to arranging Hidden for the live shows, he recruited the renowned German conductor André de Ridder, whose involvement seems to have had an edifying effect on Barnett and an influence on the softer, harmonious sound of Field Of Reeds. To capture that particular Puritanical mood that swerves between anxiety and euphoria, Barnett again turned to Bark Psychosis and Boymerang veteran Graham Sutton, who reprised his Hidden role as co-producer and almost gave himself a heart attack during one of the band’s famously intense recording sessions in the Cotswolds.
Barnett’s perfectionism demands that his players perform for as long as it takes to get the piece right. For example, a drum track on “Fragment Two” played by his brother George, whose part-time modelling for Paris fashion houses funds the band’s videos, was take No.76, and they spent a whole day smashing panes of glass to achieve the desired effect for “The Light In Your Name” – yet it’s barely audible in the mix. Barnett has no interest in using soft-synths or preset sounds. He’d much rather create the sounds from scratch, even if that means hiring a hawk to flap around the studio for hours.
Another plausible explanation for the record’s sense of dreamy intimacy, aside from the title’s reference to the ancient Egyptian notion of heaven, stems from Barnett’s fascination with the great American songbook. A field recording of a vaguely recollected rendition of Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You” is submerged beneath piano at the beginning of opening track “The Way I Do”. When his vocals overlap with those of Portuguese singer Elisa Rodrigues during the discordant climax of “The Light In Your Name”, each singing lyrics from their perspective, Barnett admits to borrowing this device from Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns”. There’s no reason not to believe him, but it is difficult to decipher what they’re actually saying.
Elsewhere, wrapped around a suspiciously jaunty piano figure, “Fragment Two” is the album’s most orthodox song, with Barnett half-singing, half-mumbling lines such as “In crushed glass by the train line, there is something there” like a drunk trial witness. On “Organ Eternal”, a lovely descending organ melody cascades into swirling strings and rasping brass. The tone-drone of “Dream”, which features Rodrigues, is one of those tracks you’d barely tolerate on a Björk record, but the closing title track, a blast of basso profondo so stickily resonant it sounds almost synthetic, sprinkled with woodwind and windchime, is quite remarkable. Never less than interesting, These New Puritans have raised their game once again. A tough one to make but astonishingly realised, Field Of Reeds is further evidence that they’re out there, on their own.
Credit Willy Vanderperre